The Devy Rides Out!
An Interview With Devin Townsend
by Nicholas Holmes
Live photos by Tess Donohoe www.tessdonohoe.com
Other photos courtesy of Century Media/Tom Hawkins
Teatime on a drab summer afternoon in a seaside resort. A figure glides along in a grey hooded top and glasses, with the hood up. Could be a moody teenager, complete with the slight head down posture. Or a tech nerd from one of the office blocks on a break. The truth is closer to the latter, but he is no ordinary tech nerd. This is Devin Townsend. After a break of a few months, he is back in Britain to play Download Festival. A few acoustic shows have been added to keep him busy including one in the club, Bournemouth’s Sound Circus, I’ve been going to since my college days.
Townsend seems tired but he is affable and incredibly candid. Tonight is only the third gig after several months away from the stage. That was not much of a holiday. The Canadian was mixing the results of his four-night celebration of the Devin Townsend Project so far, an album per night live in London last November, recorded for the nine-disc “By A Thread” box set. As if that wasn’t enough he’s also been preparing the fifth DTP opus for release, “Epicloud”. It is certain to be epic and definitely loud.
In a lengthy, thoughtful and funny chat, he discusses seismic changes in his life and lifestyle, his creative process, the bizarre alien creation known as Ziltoid, the upcoming one-off sonic and visual spectacular promised by The Retinal Circus, “Epicloud” and the joys of doing things very slowly…
NH: Does said mega package, “By A Thread”, mark the end of an era?
DT: That sounds probably a lot more romantic than the reality of it! (laughs) The fact that those four records happened at that particular period of time definitely grouped it in to a certain product that had an aesthetic. The four shows that we did in London summarised that period of it for sure. But I’ve got three or four records on deck right now and we’re just finishing another one, “Epicloud”, and it’s just business as usual. I write music perpetually.
NH: There are a lot of different emotions flying in those albums. Was a cathartic thing going on?
DT: Yes, absolutely. A bunch of people died in my family recently and I didn’t cry. I’m thinking why is that? Then when I start writing I find that it comes out in these torrents. I think the whole process, the Devin Townsend Project, was a certain period of time that encapsulated the birth of my child, quitting drinking and drugs and all sorts of things that were specific to that particular period. But as life goes, as soon as that was over there’s lots of things that happened since then and there’s lots of things happening now. There’s lots of things that I’m yet to process from before all of that. I think the emotional content of what I do is this perpetual game of playing catch up with myself.
The first show on this tour was terrible for me. I was trying to figure out what it was. Because I spend a lot of my time so isolated on purpose and deliberately, the first day of tour when all of a sudden you’re having to be social again and you have to shift yourself from being insular to being a performer and being onstage, having to discuss your process and all these things which is absolutely the antithesis of what I choose to be when I’m at home. The only thing I can equate it to is if you’re driving in fifth gear down the freeway and then you just ram it into reverse (laughs). For me, it takes three days just to remember how to present myself and my music publicly. I think that’s healthy in that if it was easy for me then I don’t think I would be fully being honest. If I was just able to be (clicks fingers), “Hey! How’s it going? I’m on tour now. Let’s talk!”, I think I’d be full of shit. I think it’s a sociopathic tendency to be able to (clicks fingers) turn it on and off like that. Conversely when I get home, it takes me three days to be emotionally available to the people that I should be. Because in order for me to even talk to interviewers and friends and be the leader of this band, and be somebody that is solid enough to lead something without being a total banana or a liability emotionally, I have to close myself off in a way. That takes several days. I don’t think I’m closing myself off in terms of being emotionally honest. But at the same time I definitely close myself off in terms of being emotionally vulnerable in the way that I am on the first day of a tour. I’m like, “What the fuck?!”
NH: Quite a shock to the system then?
DT: Oh man, it’s crazy. I’d been in front of a computer in my pyjamas for the past three months mixing “Epicloud”, taking the kids to pre-school and mowing the lawn. Then from that in the period of nine or 10 hours it took to fly to Holland, there was 10,000 people. I had no idea what to do. So I get out there and usually I can put on the whole (clicks fingers), “Hey! How’s it going? Wagga wagga wagga!” But at first I was like, “What the fuck?!” But I think that’s cool as well. Somebody asked me the other day, “How could you summarise what you think of yourself as an artist?” A work in progress. All these learning curves that come with this are important.
NH: Is the goofball humour a defence mechanism to cope with those feelings?
DT: It’s one of many. When I say work in progress, I think there’s part of me that wonders…(pauses) I want to do everything that I’m doing right now. I’m very lucky in that sense. But maybe where my heart lies in terms of very quiet things. I do like to entertain people. I really do. It’s fun. I like to make people laugh. I like to make people happy (grins). That’s a big part of why I continue to perform. I think if that wasn’t an element, if I had no desire or care whether or not people were enjoying themselves, I don’t know if I’d say anything. I don’t know if musically I’d move. I don’t know if I’d do anything over 84 decibels at all. I think part of the process is me figuring out how I’ve ended up here and if my whole life goal has seemed to be apparently to find peace and quiet. How I’ve ended up in this epic loud profession?!(laughs)
NH: How important is it to play live and not simply release albums as some artists do?
DT: This is another thing I’ve fought within myself. How much of it is an egocentric thing? There’s a part of me that feels very separate from the music. I really like the Carl Jung concept of the collective unconscious where everything exists and no-one’s responsible for any of it. However everybody’s, as far as I can interpret it, personal experiences are their filter whatever that filter may be. Canadian, middle class, white, whatever it is, allows you to be privy to certain songs. I write a song and I’m like “That’s awesome! I really like that!” But I don’t necessarily feel like “This is my song”. I feel like it is an important song when it has an emotional impact on me. If I am stunted, in my opinion, emotionally to the point of not being able to express myself it’s specifically to the people closest to me.
I’ve been married for so many years, and trying to get me to talk (rolls eyes). Granted, I’m a man (laughs). It is difficult for me. So why is it I am so completely laid bare publicly? On one level maybe my need for attention is so deep rooted that if I can be validated from people that I don’t have an emotional investment in, then I can purge that. Maybe there is a part of that, sure. But the songs I really like, I do them because it makes me happy. Then I see other people happy with them. Then I think, “Well you do like to make people happy, right?” Then conversely I’m like, “Is that some kind of martyr thing? You’re putting yourself out for the sake of people.” I’ve got no desire to be a martyr. Everything I do I am choosing to do.
NH: What has feedback been like to the strongly emotional content of some of the songs? In contrast to the crazy Ziltoid stuff?
DT: I’m hoping that perhaps through the lighter stuff we can attract people with that. Then maybe they can hear that (emotional) stuff and maybe be privy to it without it having some sense of self-importance. I feel completely ostracised from artists and musicians that present themselves like, “Check out how deep I am. Check out the importance of what I’m doing. You need to hear this!” and all that shit, because everything I do is just trial and error. I’m just kind of making tonnes of mistakes, and through those mistakes saying this is what came from that. That’s where I’m at now. Through fucking up, profoundly, this is part of my life. Or making this right decision that has actually helped me a lot, these are the sounds that I’ve heard as a result of those decisions. I find that any of the response I get from people in the best case scenario is like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been through something similar.”
I even dislike the word fan. The best audience relationships I have are where it’s a normal thing. Like, “Hey! That’s cool!” I’m very uncomfortable when people put you on a pedestal, and they think you’re able to represent this thing, without the backlog of knowledge that you’re 40-years-old and you’ve been doing this your entire life. Like after years of doing something, a plumber after he does it for 25 years. If you’re not good at it, you’re not meant to be a plumber. Same with me. I’m good at what I do because I’ve been doing it my whole life. So when people make assumptions on me as a person based on what I do musically, I find that very, very uncomfortable.
The whole humour element of it is hopefully a way to diffuse some of that. On Pro Tools, you can make it sound like you’re Zeus hurling lightning bolts at the planet! People come away from it saying, “He’s the best singer, he’s the best guitar player, he’s the best drummer or whatever it is.” But singing is hard, man. My voice is okay. Sometimes. Good in the studio. But live, man? It’s fucking hit and miss! (laughs) There was something on Youtube comparing my voice to some these really schooled singers like the Symphony X guy and Dio and all these people that are consistently really on point. There was this one show we played in France where my voice was fucked from beginning to end, and my first reaction was “Well, listen to that!”
When we get together for a show, even with these acoustic shows, I feel so honoured to be able to come to a country that I really enjoy and be able to play for people. People are showing up still after 20 years. But there’s still this insecure part of me that’s like, “I’m not all that!” As you get older, you don’t get stronger and more good-looking! (laughs) You end up being an older version of the thing that at 25 they are so attached to that they won’t let go of.
NH: Where has Ziltoid been lurking and where is he going next?
DT: I want to make a movie! I get so many stupid ideas, and it’s like…I’ve got new-ish management. They’re always on me like, “Shut up on Twitter, man!” I’ll get an idea in the middle of the night and I’m like (funny voice), “I got an idea! I’m gonna do this, that and the other thing!” Six months later people are like, “Where was that?” I’m like, “Where was what?!” (laughs) Part of actualising ideas is just to throw them into the ether. Not necessarily to the audience. Just to see how I feel about it if I sit with it for a while. That was a great idea, or that was a stupid idea! (laughs)
In terms of music, it’s the same with Ziltoid. I write down songs and I make demos very rapidly to see which ones I remember. The ones that I remember are the ones I’m supposed to do. There’s a future for Ziltoid. Absolutely!
NH: Will the Retinal Circus be a completely one-off?
DT: In my mind, it is an opportunity for me to begin to demonstrate what I ultimately think the music needs to be represented as live. Whether there will be anything similar or not to The Retinal Circus is probably doubtful. I’m hoping that this event will give me at least the beginning of an opportunity to make the screens and the choirs and that awesome kind of stuff happen. For me, it’s creative freedom. I don’t want to have to pretend we’re needing to fit in anywhere, because it very obviously doesn’t. Let’s just take it where it can go.
NH: Fan question: What bothers Juula?
DT: The character is essentially so tied to religion and sex. The idea of being any different than living through penance, based on a fear of punishment, is terrifying. Because all of a sudden his entire life of misery was absolutely his own doing. Just a total martyr. It’s like “Holy shit! Now I’m old and I’ve wasted my entire life.”
NH: Fan question: Who is your favourite drummer?
DT: I am a drummer slut, man. (laughs) I love drummers. I like Brooks Wackerman (Bad Religion). I’ve known him 25 years. He’s a good friend and I think he’s a great drummer. The guy who plays in Evanescence (Will Hunt) is awesome. I like the guy in Porcupine Tree (Gavin Harrison). I think he’s really tasteful. I like the guy in Sevendust (Morgan Rose), he’s good. Gene (Hoglan). I’m still trying to find the perfect drummer! (Laughs). It’s how you hit the cymbals. It’s the sound of your snare. It’s very rare that I’ve come across a drummer that I’ve been like “Woah!”. I think JP (Jean-Paul Gaster) from Clutch is awesome. Ah! You know who’s great? Horatio “El Negro” (highly respected Cuban drummer and percussionist). He played with Carlos Santana for a long time, and I saw him at a drum clinic in Vancouver. He was just the most laid-back. So effortless. I love drummers, man.
NH: What is an “Epicloud”?
DT: I did a cannonball with Epicloud. I grew up with Def Leppard. And Enya, And Judas Priest and Metallica. Through “Deconstruction” (released in June 2011), when I did it I thought “I’ve made a heavy metal record!” and it’s been several years since Strapping Young Lad. The general consensus was like, “It’s not really metal.” I’m like, “Well I thought it was!” I said, “Ok. If apparently I’m not able to create metal that fits into the scheme any more, really what I’ve always wanted to do is make something that you can sing to. That you can have a party to. I like melodic music and I like hard rock, and I want to make something that is easy. After all these four records (“Ki”, “Addicted”, “Deconstruction” and “Ghost”) and before I make another Ziltoid record and the Casualties of Cool record, I wanted to make something that didn’t have drama. I wanted to make something that was epic. I wanted to make something that was (pauses)…no bullshit. I love choruses. I want to see people dance. I want to throw a party. There’s so much crap in there it’s unbelievable, right? (laughs) But it’s easy music. It’s big choruses and you can dance to it. I’ve been denying that part of me for so long! (laughs) Like “No, I’m the metal guy! Let me make this complicated shit because it makes me feel like I can compete with all these other complicated bands.” I think “Epicloud” disregards all that. It’s like, fuck all that for a while, man. I just wanna make a record that doesn’t have the lyrical content and musical content that’s so hung up. I think “Epicloud”’s a period in time that won’t happen again. So I’ve tried to make all that it can possibly be. Some people are gonna hate and some people will love it. I’m very happy with it.
NH: During these crazily busy months, has there been any chill out time? If so, spent doing what? Apart from music!
DT: I ride my bike. I play bass. Oops! Music aside…not bass guitar, sorry! (laughs) I do things very slowly. That’s kind of a hobby of mine. When I’m not working I like to eat slow, I like to walk slow, I like to put my shoes on slow. If that can be a hobby? (laughs) I like biking a lot around Vancouver. And slowly. I don’t like getting anywhere quick at all because my whole life is so rushed. When I’m not working, I like to be slow. That actually does me a lot of good.
Later that evening, Devin takes to the tiny stage with just an acoustic guitar. His bald bonce and the top of the six-string are the only things visible, apart from some back projections and he leads the audience through a fairly leisurely set with plenty of sing songs. It is like being at a really fun campfire hangout indoors. An without the fire. Or the camping. Hmm. There is plenty of daft humour as he claims that in his mind he is still sat in his underwear watching “Man vs Food”! When someone heckles, he throws back with added facial expressions, “I am being beautiful. Shut the fuck up!” Winding up the set with a raucous “Bad Devil”, Devin threatens, “I will be back playing more obnoxious metal from midnight! And I brought “Watermark” by Enya! “Orinoco Flow” first right?”
After posing for numerous photos and signing lots of stuff, he climbs into the DJ booth and true to his word spins “obnoxious metal”, but among the Machine Head and Sepultura tracks there are plenty of curveballs. As promised, “Orinico Flow” blasts out and has even those too young to know who the fuck Enya is rocking around the pole on the stage. He also drops some truly, utterly, obnoxious pop. The Spice Girls and The Vengaboys, plus a bit of old school cheese from Abba. Then he departs for some much needed rest.
As the resident DJ keeps the party atmosphere going, I decide that nothing this cool ever happened here when I was a student. A truly awesome night.
“Epicloud” is out via Inside Out Music, more details at: http://www.insideoutmusic.com/
Devin Townsend Project plays the following dates:
Oct 23 Newcastle Northumbria University (Retinal Circus warm-up)
Tickets available HERE
Oct 24 Cambridge Junction (Retinal Circus warm-up)
Tickets available HERE
Oct 27 London Roundhouse The Retinal Circus SOLD OUT
The Retinal Circus will be live-streamed at http://www.livemusicstage.com/retinal-circus
Devin Townsend Project will tour the UK with Fear Factory in November and December, click here for dates (click on the dates to right of page for ticket links)
Full details and lots more at the newly revamped website: www.hevydevy.com