Interview: Devin Townsend

nick porcaro finds out where we go from here…

 

Devin Townsend is tired. (And understandably so.)

After ending an erratic thirteen-year career with extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad and releasing fifteen solo albums, it seems as if Mr. Townsend has done all there is to do. Who else has the chutzpah to slingshot from genre to genre with such intimidating proficiency? Who else can write a goofy sci-fi space opera starring a hand puppet and follow it with a calm, introspective study of one’s newfound sobriety? That Devin is able to contain such forceful creative energy without losing his mind is nothing short of a miracle.

Consider Infinity, a 1999 album released after the artist was diagnosed with bipolar disorder following a self-prescribed stay at a mental hospital. The release set a blueprint for Devin’s future work, merging face-melting blasts of metal with tranquil atmospherics, industrial samples and a flair for the theatrical. It is only natural that, ten years later, he arrived at four distinct releases by the Devin Townsend Project: Ki is mellow and organic, guided as much by blues drummer Duris Maxwell’s relaxed grooves as it is by Devin’s vocals. Addicted! is unapologetic pop-metal, with shockingly stacked production inspired by Nickelback. Deconstruction blends intricate orchestration with pummeling riffs and fart jokes, to the dismay of overly serious metal heads. And Ghost is a tender, vulnerable songwriter’s record heavy on pan flute and acoustic guitar.

Which brings us to Epicloud.

An impossibly optimistic release, Epicloud is stacked with wall-to-wall guitars, a chorus of gospel singers and sweet, soaring vocals from guest vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. There are Andrew W.K.-esque party jams alongside power ballads reminiscent of Journey. It’s the rare metal album without any pretense — no tough guy posturing here — and an alarming dose of self-help mantras. But underneath the glossy production and singalong lyrics lies an element of uncertainty. “Where do we go from here?” a chorus asks early in the record.

Pop-Break’s Nick Porcaro spoke with Devin to learn the answer to that very question…

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Pop-Break:True North” starts out with the lyrics “I love you, I need you, I’ve always been around you.” It’s a defiantly un-metal sentiment…can you tell us when you figured out your music was headed in that direction?

Devin Townsend: I think it’s always gone in that direction. Even with Strapping, even in the darkest moments, when I cleared my head out from drugs and drinking and was a little more honest with myself about a lot of things in life. Up until a certain point I assumed one thing until I really looked at it and realized maybe it’s always been my message. Even through the chaos of Strapping there’s this element of hope, and just as I got older it was a lot more apparent to me it’s difficult for me to fit in anywhere. It’s difficult for me to pretend I’m not a dork, but for years I tried to pretend, semi-successfully, but now I don’t have the energy. This is what I feel, this is what I want to say, and I take a fair amount of shit for it just because people have got this whole investment in what’s hip or what’s cool, or whatever, but at least I don’t have to lie. At least I don’t have to pretend.

When I’m doing interviews I can just speak as opposed to having to watch myself because it’s gonna belie some sort of aesthetic we’ve been trying to sell to people, which is just a crock of shit. I think that if I have to tour, I want to be contributing; I don’t want to add to the bullshit of the world.

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PB: Have you seen a change in how live audiences are receiving the new material?

DT: I think over the years the audience that listens to my music has changed with me, and the people that are sick of waiting for me to do something that I’m not gonna do are slowly leaving, and if they don’t they’re foolish.

PB: Speaking of doing something you don’t want to do…a lot of people were surprised to see [Strapping Young Lad guitarist] Jed Simon come out with you at the Retinal Circus to play “Detox” and “Love?” Was it unusual or uncomfortable to play that material again?

DT: I didn’t feel anything. It was for the fans. To me it was another song in the repertoire. It was awkward because the reaction to it was really strong and the mood changes instantly. It goes from being a bunch of people of a bunch of different ages coming to have a good time to that aggressive, cathartic release of energy.

My whole statement with playing that material was, “That was me.” It’s not like it was a different person on Strapping Young Lad, that was me! I wrote that stuff! I’m not afraid of it. It’s just that in order to get to where I’m at now, where I wanted to be, I had to go through that. I wanted to use that retrospective of Retinal to say, “Well, look. These are my friends.” The band ended because I wasn’t comfortable with the scene and what it was turning into; that doesn’t change the fact that Jed’s a really important person in my life, and so is Byron [Stroud] and so is Gene [Hoglan. People change, times change, you fall out of touch, but those moments that you share are always there, right? Strapping was a huge part of my life, so to ignore it or to distance myself from it for any other reason other than fear of it is just absurd. Strapping is a part of me, and that show was a retrospective.

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PB: Is that the same approach you had when you invited Steve Vai to narrate the show? [Devin started his career as lead singer on the ill-fated Vai album Sex and Religion]

DT: I had to use Retinal as a way to confront a whole bunch of shit in my world that I was uncomfortable with, like Vai and Strapping and my total nerdiness and the fact that the whole show was so narcissistic … it’s difficult to look at those things and not feel like an idiot, right? So before the show I was thinking, “Just do it. Just get it over with.”

Whatever my career arc is supposed to do, I have no idea. I can’t work any harder than I have, and money is certainly not something that is easy. It seemed like an important step and I back it, if that makes any sense.

PB: With all that being said, are you looking to continuously tour, or is finishing your current projects [Casualties of Cool and Ghost 2] the priority?

DT: There are tours coming up but I’ve got some time off. It’s a weird time for me right now. We just realized the other day that we’ve spent less than a month at home over the past six months, and you’ve got kids and family and you’re not making a shitload of money and there’s this element of it that’s like, “Well, where is this gonna go? What are you trying to achieve?” And the things that are important to me about this, money aside, is that we are contributing something cool and we are saying something that’s helpful to people. I think that in of itself is a big enough reason to continue touring, but at the same time, on a personal level, it’s very difficult to rationalize sometimes.

There isn’t a lot of money but there’s a lot of attention, and that’s something I never wanted. Maybe when I was younger, but now that I’m older I always want to disappear rather than be the focus of attention. But the way this is going with Retinal and all this stuff is that the focus on me is so extreme, that it’s a fine line between wanting to make music, wanting to be creative, and not wanting the attention, but in order to do what you do you accept that attention but it’s not like there’s a whole lot of money involved. You’re not living in a mansion, you’re just a dude. It’s this weird dichotomy between the blue collar income and this extreme sort of what it ends up representing.

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But I’ll add that all of this is by my own design. I’m not ignoring that. I’m not doing a bunch of shit that results in this and saying “Oh, poor me.” It’s obvious why things are going in this direction. But after all this time on the road it’d be nice to take six months off without worrying about everything falling apart, right? We’ll see.

PB: Earlier you touched on the importance of doing something cool, and you certainly kept things fresh and interesting with featuring Anneke on Addicted! and, more recently, Epicloud. Do you have any further plans to work with her?

DT: She was in Retinal, of course. The thing with Annie is she’s got her own career, and she lives in Holland, and she’s got kids and all that. So it’s not something where’s she’s just an 18-year-old kid looking for an opportunity to tour. All this shit takes money, right, and the reason we don’t tour with Annie more often is because we can’t afford to. If things turn out the way that people really want to see that then we’ll definitely go in that direction, but if it doesn’t the proof is in the pudding.

VIDEO: “Awake!” from By a Thread: Live in London 2011

But I also think it’s because of the industry right now. I think it’s good in a lot of ways that there’s not a lot of money in the industry just because … maybe it puts music back to the place where it should be. It’s only been in the past 50 to 100 years that we’ve had music stars. Before that, music was just a thing that people did. People wrote songs because it was part of the experience of being human. We’re at this point now where it’s like you said, this super-commoditized view and vision, but they’re also meeting each other on the way down. You’ve got the posters and larger than life, Photoshopped versions of yourself, yet the industry that looks like its sustaining that doesn’t really exist. So it’s this kind of middle ground.

Luckily for me I haven’t lost the love of music. I love it. My need to play is as strong as ever; maybe it’s moved in different directions but it’s not like I’m gonna go, “Oh, fuck music.” Every day I have a guitar in my hands.

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PB: I remember you said around the time of Epicloud that you were writing on bass guitar and it gave you a new perspective. Is that something you’ve stuck with?

DT: Absolutely. The dream job would be for someone to come up and say, “Here, we’re gonna pay you a shit ton of money to play bass in a country band.” That’d be great; then you’d be involved in this scene where you’re anonymous again. But I mean all these things are pipe dreams. The reality of it is I’ve established a very distinct kind of identity and the music that seems to be happening automatically is in the process of establishing itself as whatever it is. For example, Epicloud is a hard rock sort of sound, yet we’re out with the heaviest band on the planet [Gojira]. We just did our last tour with Septic Flesh, and we were playing love songs with distorted guitar! So again there’s another part of the career that’s intercepting itself.

Everything’s a little awkward right now. It looks big but there’s no money. It’s turned in a very decidedly optimistic and hard rock way, yet still the gigs we’re being presented are the real brutal metal gigs. Ultimately I think all the things we’re going through right now are exactly what need to happen, so we’ll see what happens as a result.

PB: Is that how you approached your role as producer and bassist on the Bent Sea EP as well? Was it sort of an escape?

DT: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean the only problem with that is it’s grindcore…I mean I like grindcore for sure, I love it, but that’s not necessarily the type of bass I’m super-stoked on.

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PB: On a similar train of thought, Physicist is obviously—

DT: Terrible.

PB: …an album with controversial production, and just controversial all- around, but you rerecorded “Kingdom” for Epicloud and it slams.

DT: And I’m gonna redo “Victim.”

PB: Was there anything else you planned to revisit?

DT: I was really depressed when I made that record, you know. I’d been diagnosed as being bipolar but in hindsight I’d just done a bunch of drugs for the first time. So now, years after, I’m sober and I haven’t been on any of those fuckin’ medications or anything for a decade.

PB: That’s great.

DT: So, in hindsight there’s a lot of facepalming involved with that, where it’s like less of anything other than just taking a bunch of psychedelics and freaking out, right? Publicly, which is always nice … the thing with Physicist is I thought there were some really good songs on it, but I’ve always wanted to get sort of — and I haven’t really achieved it yet—but with what we did on Epicloud, I like the idea of real slick, sort of commercial-sounding things that are still heavy.

PB: Like Addicted! as well.

DT: Yeah, yeah, like a cross between Def Leppard and fuckin’ Metallica or whatever, right? But because money is the way it is, I produce and mix all this shit. So I produced and mixed Epicloud, and Addicted!, and I get better, but it’s still not great, it’s still what it is.

PB: Come on…

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DT: I appreciate that, but at the time with Physicist, I thought I’d spend the money on getting this guy Mike Plotnikoff to mix it, because he’d done all these rock records that sounded killer. But he was trying to mix my sounds and at the time my sounds were, well, shit. So the combination of his techniques with my undeveloped engineering skills just turned into this din, unproduced white noise that I was never satisfied with. However, I do like a lot of the songs so I’m slowly gonna redo them.

PB: Awesome. I know that people are still a little confused with what’s going on with Ghost 2. The last I heard you were planning on including it with Casualties of Cool.

DT: That’s right, yeah.

PB: So will it be the whole session, or just cherry picked tracks?

DT: It’ll be the whole thing. The thing with Ghost and with Casualties is, the majority of it’s done, but there’s a part of me right now that is concerned that I’ve been putting out too much, and not for the sake of the audience but just for the expectations of it. I think that there’s a part of my process that had a certain amount of itself invested in being the guy who produces a lot, who is really prolific or whatever. It’s very easy when people start giving you kudos for that like, “Oh, he puts out more shit than anybody, right?” and I put out more shit than anybody because I’m that guy. But I’ve slowed down on Casualties, although it is done — so is Ghost, except for final shit — because I just don’t want to be that guy right now. I don’t want my personality and my creative thing to be so invested in being anything pertaining to quantity, and the wacky guy, or the prolific guy … I want to make music because I love music, and when the time comes when I feel like I’ve got my mind in a place where I really want to finish Casualties and Ghost, I’ll do it. The art’s done; 14 songs for Casualties, 12 songs for Ghost 2 is done already.

Audio: “Fall” from the upcoming Ghost 2

PB: I guess that’s probably the same thing with Z2.

DT: Z2 is a little different, I think, because that’s a project that has a ton of creative potential for me in terms of multimedia stuff and being able to make a soundtrack for a movie, you know, sort of a Rocky Horror-type thing. At the same time I don’t want to rush that one because it’s been a lot of years of relentless activity. Box sets and Retinal, and Ziltoid concerts and five records, bonus discs and all this shit, plus trying to be a dad, you know what I mean?. I just kind of feel like—luckily, I’m sober, I don’t feel unhinged at all but I do feel like I’ve lost my plot a bit in terms of motivation.

The whole project—the whole Devin Townsend Project — truly is that. It’s a project. I’m trying to figure out not only myself but music and what I really want to do. But I’m on the way; I think it’s gonna be good.

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PB: I’m very much excited for that. Thank you so much! This was an absolute pleasure talking to you and meeting you.

DT: You too, thank you brother.

Following the interview, Devin opened for the mighty Gojira at the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia, PA. As balloons provided by the crowd were tossed across the venue, Devin took a moment to reflect. “I woke up today and looked like shit. Felt like shit. But I feel great right now. Look at this! You guys are fucking awesome.” He proceeded to lead the audience in jazz hands to the beat of “Lucky Animals”, a swing-time metal jam off Epicloud. “It’s fun,” he roared, “and it’s SATURDAY, and you’ve probably got a bunch of ironic hipster beers in ya!”

Thus is the nature of Mr. Townsend. We’d be lucky to ever find another like him.

Video: “Lucky Animals” at the TLA

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