In Conversation With… Kataklysm’s J-F Dagenais

By Jason Wellwood

Almost twenty years into their career as a band, Kataklysm has just released their tenth studio album Heaven’s Venom on Nuclear Blast records. Not ones to sit around and rest, the band has been touring non-stop all summer and look to continue to do so well in to the new year. I caught up with guitarist/producer Jean-Francois Dagenais just prior to a show at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. Here is what he had to say.

Hellbound: How is tour going so far?

JF Dagenais: It’s pretty incredible. Especially the Ozzfest part, that was pretty insane. It was like playing European festivals but here in America which is something we’ve never had a chance to do here. One day after another was just full of people and we had a good time with the other bands, sharing and stuff. It was pretty cool. Now we’re on the Devildriver leg of the tour, we’re doing 3 weeks with them until September 16th and the shows are doing well. Tonight we’re playing the Alrosa Villa, in Columbus Ohio, the club where Dimebag was shot. It’s pretty creepy playing here and makes you feel a little nostalgic.

I would imagine it’s a little creepy playing there, but I’m sure the crowd will be really receptive.

Yeah, we’re loading in the gear and thinking about it, it’s definitely a little bit creepy. With the show reaction, I have no doubt, it’s been great all across the board so far. We do well in this state, in Ohio, playing here and Cleveland is another big city for us. And I think the match up with us and Devildriver is really super good because their fans actually like our band and our fans like Devildriver.

Do you find that you get a better response in the States than you do when you play Canada?

I find it’s pretty much equal actually. I think Canada was much harder when we first started and I feel like now they’re getting more behind the band. For some reason, I feel like the Canadians are accepting us because we’re doing well overseas and we’re doing well in America now. So the Canadians are getting really proud of us being Canadian and doing well, and getting behind the band. I think Canada took a little longer for us to be well received than it did in the other countries. No we’re doing really well. We played Heavy MTL last year and have been selling out a lot of club shows within Canada. So we’re getting a good response now and the Canadian fans have been super great with Kataklysm. But I find it’s getting pretty even everywhere, we’re doing well in America, we’re doing well in Europe. It’s exciting!

Kataklysm has been around for almost twenty years now, do you ever look back and you’re shocked with where you are compared to where you were?

Oh yeah! When I think about us being four young guys who started a band in high school and now we’re sharing a stage with Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue, I think that’s pretty crazy! We look at each other and think, ‘man, that’s pretty awesome!’ compared to where we came from. Every year it seemed like it grew a little bigger and it took a little while for us to become serious about playing music. We started Kataklysm more as a hobby, we wanted just to have fun, hang out, to tour and see the world and party with a lot of people. After awhile you see that your career is doing better and you realize that ‘wow, this can be your daily job’ and that’s how it’s been for the last 8 years or so. We haven’t really needed to get regular 9-5 jobs and we’ve just been doing Kataklysm, just a little bit of other work on the side and it’s been good. That’s the crazy thing about it, you start up from nothing, not thinking about where it’s going to go and every year it’s a little bigger and we’re going places that we never thought we’d be able to achieve. Especially playing extreme music the way we do!

Where has been the craziest place you’ve played, the place you never thought you’d play?

When we went to Australia last year that was pretty crazy! I never thought we’d be playing Australia or playing Mexico. Or you’re playing Serbia or eastern European countries and you’re like ‘wow! We’re actually here playing a show and there’s a lot of people here that now our music!’. It’s insane! But to me, Australia was a good trip, to go all the way across the world from where we are in Montreal…it took 21 hours to get there. It’s crazy to see we have fans there and a lot of people came out to support us. We did a full tour over there, eight shows and pretty much filled up all the rooms. That’s exciting to see how far our music is reaching people.

With such a large back catalogue, is it hard to pick your set list?

Yeah, it’s actually really hard. Because we have a few songs on every record that everyone wants to hear and if we don’t we get slack for it. And there’s other songs that we want to play ourselves because we enjoy playing them more than others. So we try to compromise somewhere in between and come up with a setlist. It’s really hard, every tour we try to pick the best we can. And on a tour like this we only have half an hour to 45 minutes to play and we have 10 albums to cover. That’s becoming a problem after all these years! We still manage to do a decent setlist and we try to change them around between tours as well. We switch them around so that we can play everything that we enjoy playing.

With Heaven’s Venom being released are you focusing mostly on new material?

We’re doing about three songs from Heaven’s Venom out of a thirty to forty minute set and the rest we try to do kind of a best of everything else. We want to play more; we’re actually getting excited about doing headliner tours in Europe and one in America later next year to get to be able to play more of the new record. Those songs are so fresh and exciting to play now that we really want to do them almost more than the other ones. We’ve been playing the same songs over and over it’s refreshing to have new material to play, so we’re looking forward to that.

It must get to the point where you think ‘do I really have to play this song again?’

Yes, exactly! I can understand bands like Iron Maiden that have to play ‘Number of the Beast’ night after night for twenty years! I can relate to that! It would be nice to change the set list once in awhile! (laughs) But some of the fans that come, they don’t get to see you all the time and they want to hear certain songs. I understand that too, so we have to be nice to those people as well because they are the ones buying the tickets and the albums as well. So we try to compromise between what we want to play and what they want to hear.

And maybe a lot of fans don’t know that they want to hear something in particular live, but when they hear it, it becomes their new live favourite.

Yeah, sometimes it happens. We have some songs that we didn’t think would translate live but we tried them on some tours and they become live songs that we have to play because they work good. And it happens also that some other songs feel like they are not meant to be played live. Some of the songs from earlier records, we’d get demands for certain songs that you’d start playing live and realize they were better on CD than live. And Vice-Versa. There are songs that are better live than on CD. It all depends on the mood and vibe of the music.

Was there any song in particular that surprised you that translated live better than you thought it would?

We have a lot of songs from Shadows and Dust that we actually never played. To me, that’s one of my favourite records and once in awhile we’ll try one of the more obscure tracks that we never do. Last year we played ‘Centuries Beneath The Dark Waters’ which is one of the more obscure tracks from the album and it did so well live now we’re trying to get it in to the set more. We didn’t realize that we had that great live track because sometimes you have new records and you have new songs and you forget about the older ones.

Has writing for Kataklysm become harder over the years or has it become automatic for you now?

I think we’re pretty spontaneous about it. We try not to ask ourselves too many questions when we write. We just write and we know whenever we like something or we think something’s not quite right. I think with the years you get a little more picky about what you’re writing. We know what we like and what we don’t like so, a lot of stuff gets eliminated. It makes the writing process maybe a little longer but at the same time we’re sharp about what we like. So whenever we come up with an idea and everybody is into it, we look at each other and say ‘yeah this is awesome’ and we go forward with it. It’s pretty much a spontaneous process, but I think we gained a lot more experience with years of doing it and in that sense it makes it a lot easier.

Do you all write together or do you do it on your own and bring it in to each other?

We used to write more together but lately everybody is living in different areas so it’s harder to get together. I have a home studio and Stephane has a home studio so we write in our own environment and we trade a lot of stuff via internet and messenger. We send each other parts of music and try to build it together that way. When we’re close to finishing something, then we’ll get together and finish it. That’s how we’ve done things for the last couple of records and it’s worked really well.

The advantage of the technology is that you don’t have to live in the same city then.

Yeah, exactly, it makes everything so much easier. And you write something and you can record it right away so you don’t forget. That helps a lot too! We used to do that a lot in the past, me and Stefan would write songs and the next day you’d come to the practice spot, and you’d forget the riff and lose the idea. Now though, we record right away so nothing gets lost. And we’ve got a bank of riffs that we haven’t used yet on the computer that could be useful in the future. We use technology a lot, for sure.

When you write for Kataklysm do you usually end up with songs that don’t make the record?

Yeah, most of the time we usually have a couple or three tracks that don’t make the record and we’ll keep them to reissue as bonus material. Or sometimes we’ll keep them and when we write for a new record we’ll steal parts from them. It’s never a waste, but we want to make sure that the albums are good from A to Z and that there are no weaker parts on it. Whenever we feel that a song doesn’t have a place on the record, we’ll take it out and put something else in.

When you picked tracks for this record, was it a hard decision?

It usually isn’t. We all pretty much feel the same about which should make it or not. I feel it’s easier to see when they are all recorded and done. Then you can listen to them and get the full vibe of the song. I feel sometimes you’re excited about a song, actually playing it but then you listen to it back in the studio and you’re like ‘I don’t know if it’s as good as we thought it was’. Some others are surprises, but when you’ve actually got them recorded and you’re playing back the tracks you can tell pretty easily which ones are the good ones and which ones have to be dumped.

Thank you so much for speaking to me today JF, congratulations to you and the rest of the guys on a fantastic record with Heaven’s Venom. You’ve stepped out and experimented a little with this record but kept the same intensity we expect from Kataklysm.

Well thank you very much, it’s good to hear. We work hard every record we try to do our best and Heaven’s Venom seems to have struck a nerve so…hopefully things keep on going well!

Any idea if you’ll be doing a Canadian run anytime soon?

We want to do one. I know we have eight shows planned in December but it’ll be Quebec and Ontario. We want to come back in the new year, after we’re done in Europe, and do a tour coast to coast. We love to tour Canada, it’s our home country and we have fans, friends and family at every stop!

Heaven’s Venom is out now on Nuclear Blast.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.