Saturday, 19 February 2011

An Interview With Devin Townsend

(Here's an interview I did on the 19th February for Pi Magazine. It ended up being a bit lengthy to say the least [I think I might have overstepped my interview time slot, let's hope I didn't inconvenience anyone as a result!] so I thought I'd post the full transcript here as what goes to Pi will probably be a bit smaller. Be warned, it's pretty long.)

"Let’s just talk shit for half an hour, that's probably the best way to do this."

In the world of modern rock and metal, Devin Townsend needs little introduction. Starting his career as the vocalist for Steve Vai's Sex & Religion album and being a key part of the subsequently short-lived band, it didn't take long for Townsend to strike out on his own and establish a name for himself. Perhaps known best for his extreme metal outfit Strapping Young Lad, Devin has also had a prolific solo career that has seen him visit hard rock, acoustica, metal, prog, ambient, electronica and many things in-between. In 2007, Townsend disbanded Strapping Young Lad, the band that had probably brought him most of his fame and notoriety, and The Devin Townsend Band, the then-current incarnation of his lesser known "solo" career, taking an indefinite hiatus from the music industry altogether.

After a two year break, Townsend came back under the Devin Townsend Project moniker with the intention to release four stylistically distinct albums. In 2009, DTP released Ki and Addicted before scheduling tours to support them. As it stands, the next two in the series, Deconstruction and Ghost are slated for a simultaneous summer release.


Right now, you’re nearing the end of your four album Devin Townsend Project. Am I right in thinking that you’ve just finished recording Deconstruction [Deconstruction is set to be album number three in the project, but the last to be recorded.]?

Yeah, the final uploads are happening right now. I’m just getting all my extra beeps and boops in and sending it off to the mixing engineer, then I head to Sweden on Monday. The engineer is sending me mixes and it sounds good but I’m like, “Dude, you gotta just crank up all the chaos!” and he says, “But it’s just gonna get messy…”. That’s how I roll, brother!

So is ‘chaos’ the ethos of the album?

Organised chaos. There’s chaos or just things exploding with no relevance to anything else but then there’s the type of chaos where’s there’s eighteen odd melodies happening at the same time and I like that. Well, in its place. I have to admit, I listen to Deconstruction from beginning to end and dude, I’m white knuckle by the end of it – it’s fucking intense. However, when it’s over, I don’t want to listen to it again, haha. It’s so much work just to wrap your head around all these elements. That’s why Ghost exists in my mind, because as soon as Deconstruction’s over I’m like, “Ahhh, that’s better”!

People a few years younger than me will probably be fine to listen to Deconstruction on repeat but for me… dude, I’m heading towards 40 and I’ve only got a certain amount of energy for that ‘type’ of sound. But I guess what I was trying to do with that four record thing is say, “Well look, I only have a certain amount of energy – but I do have that energy”. So the reason I’m releasing Deconstruction and Ghost at the same time is because one doesn’t exist without the other – there’s no preference. On some level, Deconstruction is an absolute mind-fuck because it’s such intense music and there’s so many guests and orchestras and choirs and it sounds really good and it’s emotionally really overwhelming and all that shit. In its place, that’s great and I think for that that compartment, Deconstruction is ideal. But that’s only an element of it and I wanted to take that element to the extreme, I wanted it to be ‘right’. But at the same time, that exists for only a part of my day. The reason I’m releasing these two together is to be able to make the statement “that unto itself is incomplete”.

Would you say there’s a bit of a yin & yang mentality behind them, then?

Well, yeah. Everything I’ve always done has had that yin & yang thing and the reason I’ve always been so interested in that is… well, it’s a fundamental in life. I think that when I was younger, I was hung up on the fact it was some kind of ideology - the yin and the yang is a hidden spiritual equation – but now I’m like fuck, man! Without positive, negative doesn’t exist – there you go! There’s no drama to it. Really, in order to make something as extreme as Ghost, I had to make something extreme as Deconstruction to balance it out, not in any metaphoric way. There would just be moments when I was working on Ghost and I was just so fucking bored of it - there’d be people on emails, money problems, kids doing cartwheels down the hallway and I’m stressed, right? So, I’d have to at that point just write something for Deconstruction just to get rid of that aggression. At the same time, I’d be working on Deconstruction sometimes and I’d be like, “You know what? It’s a beautiful day, I feel good, I feel very fortunate, I just want to go to the beach,” and all I’m doing is listening to this incredibly pounding, oppressive music and I’m thinking… “Well, this isn’t a great soundtrack for the day”! So I’d work on something for Ghost and be like, “Ahh, that’s better”.

Speaking of Deconstruction and its intricate melodies, how was working with the Prague Symphony Orchestra?

I was very fortunate to work with a good friend of mine named Florian, and basically I wrote all the music and sent him my demos on Protools and midi files. Then he took those midis and translated them into Finale and he changed the parts he would be more aware of – say, flutes can’t play that note but an oboe can or whatever. So he was able to translate the music into a way that the orchestra would be able to understand and I think in that lies one of my favourite parts of this experience. In any walk of life, as soon as you do something that impedes on anybody else’s territory, you’re always going to get somebody’s shit in a knot. You do something with an orchestra and all of a sudden, you’ve got a bunch of people who are composers who are saying, “Well, you don’t know what you’re doing!” and I say, “You’re right! But I did it!” [laughs]. It takes too much energy to lie about that really. I write it, I think complicated music in my head and it works, but in terms of the people who are like the Zappa fans and the Stravinsky fans who give you that, “Who do you think you are?” trip, I say “Well, I’m not them!” There’s never any desire or need to compete with that because I just really love writing what I write. For me, the symphony element is like a real version of my symphonic orchestra plug-in [laughs].

There are few rumours floating about regarding special guests on the album, can you tell us a bit about that?

There’s a ton of guests on it. The parts aren’t huge, a chorus here, a verse there. I definitely don’t want to make that a selling point out of respect of the guys who have done it. A lot of the people who have been kind enough to participate have done so because we’ve been friends for a long time and I think it’ll be really gauche for me to slap it on the cover, y’know? “Mid-range selling artist includes tonnes of better selling artists on his disc, please buy!” More so than a business move… it’s taken me so long to get back in to heavy music because I really thought on some level I had a self-destructive tendency within my artistic mind that would always lead me to make poor decisions thematically when it came to writing heavy music because writing heavy music inspires certain emotions. In the past, that’s led me to writing records like Alien… I’m very proud of that record, but it’s very hard for me to wrap my head around because there’s just so much paranoia in the lyrics… there’s so much fear. It was a cool effect, but shit, dude. Having to go out and play that stuff every night sucked, to be honest. So now, I really have to say if you’re going to do heavy music, make sure you got a clear head so you can back what you’re saying. If you have to tour for several years on this record, then it means when you’re out there, every word you say can be explained. Not “Oh, well I was stoned” or “It just came out of me”. Honestly, I realised – having a kid, life in general as you get older – you’re fucking accountable for everything, y’know? And so to not clarify that shit in the past or to not be completely in control of your artistic visions at this stage in the game makes your life difficult. So with guests coming on here, I basically wanted to say – look, I want to make this statement again, after years of being afraid of it and I’m going to cannonball. I’m not going to dip my big toe in to it and say that I did it, I’m going to do it. So let’s get everybody who’s cool that we know to back it, and then let’s put an orchestra on it and let’s put a choir on it and let’s make the point by the end of Deconstruction completely clear. When it’s out, people will know who’s on it and I’ve mentioned it here and there on forums but, out of respect for the people who are involved with it, I really don’t want to make it “Buy Devin’s new record because, even though we know you don’t like Devin, you like this guy!” [laughter]

Devin Townsend Project: Live

Devin Townsend Project live at Bloodstock 2010. I never said I was a great photographer.

Speaking of other DTP releases, you’ve just put out a free live EP from the band’s first tour. How did that come about?

Dude, I’ve got so much stuff on my hard-drive that I just want people to hear. Every time I say to the label let’s put this out, they say nononono. And, to their credit, it takes money to produce it and the ads and all that shit and I’m thinking, “Well why can’t I just give it away for free?” My motivation for being a musician... Dude, I would love to have a million dollars, honestly. To not think about money every minute, every day would be awesome. For any of us, of course! But if those were my reasons for being a musician? Dude, I’d be playing… I don’t know.. pop-rock or something.

Stuff like Nickelback?

Yeah, totally. I didn’t want to say it, but exactly. It’s just not my trip. Even if I wanted to, I just wouldn’t be good at it. So basically, my whole thing now… what I do is pretty specific and what I’m trying to say is a real work in progress, it’s all hypothesis. I’m just trying to get through life and figure out each step of the game as I go and making records is a way of me explaining that to myself and in this kind of musical atmosphere, I like bouncing it off other people! I don’t have an active social life, I like the people who listen to my records not being condescended to by being called ‘fans’. Dude, they’re people. And the people who are listening to it, I just want them to get the same thing out of it that I do. Every now and then you’ll get some kind of schizophrenic response where someone will say, “We’re the same” and I’m like, “Dude, we’re all the same! There’s like twelve human emotions!” We’re simple organisms, man and the things I’m writing about are one of those twelve things, haha. I’m either mad or I’m horny or I’m happy or I’m in love. For me, the way to connect and to get a gauge if whatever it is I am doing is not so far up its own ass that it’s unreachable is by talking to people about it. The internet, Twitter… all that shit. I like it, it’s cool. And because the industry is in a state now where everybody can download what they want – shit dude, I could point you to all my records on Mediafire. So if the incentive to purchase your record is based solely on whether or not you want the artist to keep doing his shit, then I think the artist has a responsibility to say, “Well, here! I know you can get it for free, my bottom line is I want you to hear it. So go for it! But I’ve gotta pay my rent, and if I can’t pay my rent through music, I’m gonna have to get a job and if you like the music enough, I’d really rather not. So, how can we work this out?” But the problem is, you go in to a record store and there’s one of my records for twenty bucks and it cost two bucks to make the goddamn thing. So, the incentive for somebody in these financial times to spend twenty bucks on something they can get for free strictly comes down to whether or not, in my opinion, they want the artist to keep doing it. So from my perspective, it’s “Here’s a bunch of shit for free” and my reasons for giving it for free are there’s an incentive to buy the record when it comes out, because I gotta keep doing this, haha.

Speaking of touring, you’re about to embark on a European one this Spring. After your hiatus, are you back in to the swing of touring?

Oh yeah. Yeah. Drink a lot of tea and make sure my voice isn’t completely hamburgered and try and find a place on the bus to jack off where you’re not gonna get busted by your buddies, you know?

Sounds awkward!

It could be, man! [laughs] But you know, I’m a cheeseball dude. I’m a total ham, right? Being on stage, I totally enjoy it. And I can only hope by being me being a bigger nerd than other people in the audience, it’ll allow them to say, “Oh okay, I can back that!” [Laughter]

What kind of material can we expect on this tour, then?

No Strapping, obviously. But dude, Ocean Machine, Inifinity, Ziltoid, Terria, Accelerated Evolution, Synchestra, Addicted, Ki, Deconstruction, Ghost… the list goes on and on. But specifically in the past – well, I like to say in the past, but I just did a 17 minute long song on fucking Deconstruction – I had this tendency to write these stupidly long songs so a live show a lot of the time would be, “Oh great, five songs and it’s two hours long!” There’s enough material to make a lot of cool shows and a lot of different sets.

I just think that… I never go to live shows and my reason for that is I just think number one, it always sounds like shit. And there are things out of the band’s control like the venue and the PA or whatever. But there’s also, a lot of times I get this sense that it’s a chore. The band’s on tour and the band feels they’re doing you a favour by touring. Things are rough in the world in general and when I go to a show, I wanna have a good night, a good time. I wanna come back thinking “It was heavy, it was awesome, I’m in a good mood – let’s go!” So with the live shows, I’m just trying to have a blast. Not in a delusional sense like “I’m happy when I’m not!” but it’s always like “Well, look. We’re going to go on stage, I’ve got some cool guitars and we’re gonna play some songs I like and everybody’s paid money to get here.” The band’s paid money to get here! The audience has paid to get here. So for us to not rock as much as we can doesn’t make a lot of sense, y’know?

Any chance of anything off your album as Punky BrΓΌster, Cooked On Phonics?

Hahahaha. You know, it hasn’t come up yet.

It'd be great to hear 'Fake Punk' live!

Ha, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll talk to the band and see if they’re down with it, that could be cool actually! You’re in the UK, right? I’ll see what I can do. I don’t know if it’ll happen, I gotta finish this record but dude, it’s an easy song. I’ll see what I can do!

Ziltoid & Rock Band

Graphic for the Ziltoid Rock Band package by Rohan Voigt

Moving on from touring, you’ve just released stuff for Rock Band based on your album Ziltoid The Omniscient. Are there more plans for that?

Dude, I just can’t wait for them to get that fucking thing out on Rock Band. They released one song and they’re not releasing the rest of it and I spent a lot of time trying to get that thing together. Honestly, it kind of bums me out but we’ll see. So far my whole Rock Band excursion has been a little trying as I spent all that time trying to get that together and they’re like “Oh well, we can’t release it. There’s problems…” or whatever. We’ll see, I think eventually it’ll all come out. But really, I think it’s another example of the conservative nature of not just Rock Band, but the music industry in general tends to shoot itself in the foot a lot of the time. Like my whole thing with releasing that free EP was “Fuck it, man”. That whole dinosaur mentality of “Oh this isn’t going to work, this isn’t financially viable” definitely stunts the amount of things I want to do sometimes. But you never know man, that Ziltoid thing might get passed in a month or two and yeah, I’d love to do Addicted, I’d love to do Deconstruction, I’d love to do it all. It’s up to other people at this point.

What’s happening about the Ziltoid comic? Is that still in the works?

Yeah, we’re still working on it. I’ve got this guy, Rohan [Voigt], in Australia who’s been working on it. But again the Devin Townsend… Empire is usually a little scant in terms of funding. So trying to get people to do stuff for it is a little bit like, “When you’ve got time between taking care of your kids and working your 9 to 5 job, if you could do a huge project for me, that’d be awesome”. We’ll cut everybody in on the profits, but there’s not a lot of funding upfront so everything takes a long time.

Everything Else

On a different note and going back a bit, you recorded a few things with Jason Newsted of Metallica. As of yet, the Tree of the Sun recordings have yet to see the light of day. Any chance of that ever happening?

Haha, God I don’t even remember that recording. I remember a riff from the first song but… this is my problem with quote unquote super-groups, not that that was one, but in general. It’s like… to make a good record, I don’t care who you are, it takes a long time and a lot of passion and a lot of attention to detail, right? I get offered a lot of times – dude, in the last week I got two or three super-group offers – and I’m like “Okay, so what do we do?”, “We’ll get together for a week and we’ll write a record and we’ll record it…” and I’m like “Dude. The record is going to suck, man”. I don’t care who you are, the reason these bands are successful is because the record they made that people liked was slaved over for a long time. Whether or not the records came out really quick, there’s an element of inspiration or attention to detail that makes it. The audience isn’t stupid, you put on one a bad super-group record and they’ll be like, “Yeah, they slapped this together because they wanted to make a bunch of money based off the fact its Joe Bozo and Joe Knob-Gobbler in the same band together”. I honestly think that every time I get offered one of these gigs, I put so much time and energy in to making my music rock, to blow that away by making an average record with some dudes doesn’t make sense. And the Tree of the Sun thing, it was cool but it was never records. It was demos, people getting together and jamming. But there was so much attention paid to it because it was Jason, Scott [Reeder of Kyuss], Dale [Crover of The Melvins] and me. People had this sense that it was going to be a combination of all the best parts of all those bands in one place. Haha, it isn’t. It’s a bunch of people who don’t know each other getting in a room and trying to make it work and that’s what it sounds like a lot of the time.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve released demos to your audience.

Yeah, it’s all Jason. That all Jason’s shit, nothing to do with me. He holds all those masters really. I honestly haven’t talked to Jason in like 12 years, so…

Going back a bit further, I have to ask – how did you end up in The Wildhearts?

The Wildhearts were opening up for Steve Vai when we were in Europe and me and Steve had this massive fight and I ended up destroying a bunch of shit back-stage – I was 19 – and all of a sudden, me and Ginger decided that we would get along [laughter]. And then, when he kicked CJ out of the Wildhearts, Ginger was like “Remember me? From when you were on tour and fucking freaking out? You wanna come to England?” and I was like, “Sure!” Y’know, what can I say about Ginger that hasn’t be said before? The guy’s a fucking genius, he’s written some of the most beautiful music of all time. I have nothing but immense love and respect for the guy. Should him and I be in a band together? Probably not, but it doesn’t change the fact I follow every step the guy makes because I’m so sick of being lied to by music – every time I hear music, you’re lying to me – that I’ve got to hold tight to the friends and artists in my life who don’t lie to me! And Ginger’s music is one of those to me and I love the Wildhearts and what he does. Love Ginger!

You’re often touted as one of the most creative minds in modern rock and metal, but what musician would you give the creative mind accolade to?

Oh. God. I don’t really think of it like that. I definitely don’t. I don’t listen to rock and metal that much, in all honesty. When I’m not doing what I do, I listen to stuff like deadmau5. I love dance music and dub-step… that really heavy house stuff, I love it because it’s not what I do. I love quiet New-Agey and country music. But in terms of creative minds? Aw shit, man. I think any kid at my son’s preschool has a much more creative mind than any of us bananas who are doing this for a living!


  1. Hey man, superd interview. Great great read.

  2. being an author of the ziltoid tracks for rock band, i can tell you, there were a lot of unexpected problems, like harmonix taking down thew rock band network pipeline for about 2 or 3 weeks. we're trying to push the songs out of the door as soon as we can, and with new fire under out asses, i don't think we'll be spending much longer drooling over these tracks.

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