Heart of Steel: Interviews

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Interview With Devin Townsend
Interview By Chris Hawkins

Perhaps the hardest working man in Metal is Devin Townsend. How many other figures in this genre manage to balance their time producing (recently working with Lamb of God and Soilwork), while still writing and recording their own material? To top it all off, Devin completed not one, but two albums simultaneously. While Strapping Young Lad’s latest self-titled album touched upon the angst and rage of these troubled times, Devin’s other project, The Devin Townsend Band produced a more pensive, melodic experience. “Accelerated Evolution” is the perfect next step for Devin as it blends his experimenting nature with more focused songwriting pushed to the next level by an astronomically huge wall of sound. The fun doesn’t stop for Devin as he is about to embark with SYL on a tour across the U.S. with Meshuggah and then a tour with DTB.

 

It’s good to talk to you again. I remember the last we spoke at the Nile show at Jaxx in Springfield, VA; you were pretty psyched for the upcoming release of the Devin Townsend Band. Finally, I got my hands on a copy, and it sounds great!

Thanks, dude. I appreciate it.

 

 

It’s got an enormous sound. How were you able to achieve that?

It was recorded at the same time as the Strapping Young Lad record so there were similarities in terms of the physical recording of it. We recorded the drums in the same place and all, but I ended up doing most of the record on my computer at home. It turned out well. The whole purpose of this record, because it’s my first release in America, I wanted to have a record that was kind of concise in terms of the content of the music. I mean the songs are concise songs and there’s nine of them as opposed to my last record where there was really long, drawn out pieces with 15 parts…

 

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Terria did have some long parts to it…

Exactly, and the purpose of this record was to sort of cut the fat and have nine songs that could stand on their own without having to say, “Well, there’s essentially seven songs on the record and two ambient pieces.”

 

 

It comes across well, though; definitely without sounding like too much was cut out.

See again, that’s the thing is trying to make it work within the confines of a smaller structure. I didn’t want to lose what it is that makes the solo material important to me, but I did want to streamline it a little.

 

 

So you recorded at the exact same time as you guys were doing SYL?

That’s right.

 

 

Wow. How do you differentiate your thoughts and ideas for the two? It’s almost like a Yin and Yang between the two projects.

That’s kind of my whole trip. It has been for years. It’s the ceremony of opposites. The SYL and DTB records loosely are just supposed to be the positive and the negative. Everybody is sort of split to two sides personality-wise. You’ve got the aggressive side of you and the more sensible side of you. These records are meant to be sort of an overview of both of those sides.

 

 

Basically your creativity was fueled by doing two totally different projects in the same day?

Absolutely because there would be times where I’d wake up in the morning and I’d start doing SYL at noon. By about six in the evening, I’m just like, “Fuck, I can’t listen to anymore of this heavy stuff.” Then I’d go home and I’d start working on DTB, and be like, “Oh, ok, this is nice. This is relaxing.” Alternately, there would be times when I’d be working on DTB and I’d be like, “Give me something heavier, man!” Then I’d have SYL to go to. They did work together well.

 

 

I remember when you were describing your solo project a few months back, you alluded to a solo you did in one take. Is that track 7, “Away”?

Yes, that’s right.

 

 

How did you do that??

I think guitar opened up to me a while back because I was always under the impression that solos were something that was thought out. All these people that just sort of let go and ripped were doing it because they knew exactly what they were doing at all times. With this one I was like, “Man, I’m just going to go for it and see what happens.” Some interesting sounds started coming out as a result because it’s really sort of letting it flow as opposed to saying, “Ok, in this section here I’m going to punch in this little guitar lick I’ve been practicing for the past two weeks. Here I’m going to punch in the sound of the string noise as I slide my fingers down to make it sound more natural.” It’s like the whole purpose of this one was to plug in, play guitar, and go.

 

 

Do you just noodle on the guitar a lot?

Absolutely, all day, everyday. What I do is I get really shitty techno records and just plug in my amp and just jam over top of it because usually the techno stuff has got a pedal tone. It may stay in C for twenty minutes. I find if I’ve got a pedal tone to play off and a beat, I can just jam and make crazy noises forever. That’s kind of how I set up my practice regimen. I pick something that’s kind of unobtrusive to jam over and just go crazy.

 

 

Well, a lot of people practice to a click track so I guess it’s the same thing!

Yeah, except it’s just a more interesting click track.

 

 

The Strat sounds good, by the way…

Thank you, sir…

 

 

It seems like Strats often have a thin sound, but you were able to achieve that clarity without sacrificing the balls of your tone.

It’s a combination of a few things. I’m using a humbucking pickup in the Strat, and I’ve got this effects processor that I’ve used forever to get my sound. I use a Peavey 5150 and you can’t go wrong with Eddie Van Halen!

 

 

You had described “Accelerated Evolution” as having a Hard Rock vibe with hints of the earliest moments of Ocean Machine. I can see that, but it’s still not “Hard Rock”, is it?? When I think of Hard Rock, I think of The Black Crowes or Aerosmith.

To a certain extent, I think of the DTB stuff in the same sort of way as I think of Foo Fighters or something. It’s just really driving stuff. The chords are really thick, the tones are really thick, but it’s made just to be a solid chunk of Rock as opposed to being intricate. It’s meant to just occupy a lot of sonic space.

 

 

How do you make it so upbeat and catchy without sounding generic?

Well, I think that was kind of the purpose of this record was to see if I could do that. In my opinion, I managed to pull it off, but there’s the thing. Sometimes making music that’s a little more accessible you run the risk of bastardizing what the original intent of your art is. With “Accelerated Evolution”, I think the whole point was getting the same point across but without having to…like at the end of “Mountain” on Terria there’s like four minutes of an explosion. On this one, there’s none of that so if you’re vacuuming the house and you’ve got the record on, it’s not like, and “Where the hell did the music go?” There was a lot of effort put into the actual record in terms of repeated listening.

 

 

It still has the subtleties there. I was driving home from work today listening to “Depth Charge”. When I listened to it countless times before, the main riff was the obvious part that my ears were latching on to, but I noticed another guitar in the background doing down-tuned, simpler chords underneath. Things like that you just pick up on after repeated spins.

Exactly, that’s the whole point.

 

 

The album also has a vibe of being on a journey.

Yes, I agree. I think a lot of the record was written due to the fact that I’d been on tour a lot. Carrying on relationships long-distance sucks reams of ass. I think the record is just an expression of sort of where I’ve been mentally in the last year, and there has been a lot of time away from home. The experiences that you get while you’re away and the things that sort of relate back to home become a little difficult to deal with sometimes. The record I think perhaps has a theme to it that I could see a lot of people relating to in terms of just the ups and downs of relationships.

 

 

It seems to be more blatantly personal for you, though.

Yeah, but I think part of that was the experiment because SYL is so not personal. Strapping Young Lad is really angry and has a mask on it to a certain extent that sort of hides where the heart is. That was kind of the purpose of SYL was to portray that kind of energy. In order for the experiment to kind of work out, this one had to be kind of grossly naked emotionally.

 

 

Was that a whole different place for you to visit?

No, I think it’s just more of a willingness now to publicly display it.

 

 

Do you think it was a result of Terria because I got the journey (not the band) vibe from Terria as well?

Yeah, I mean every record is kind of a result of the pro’s and con’s of the one prior to it. I’m completely satisfied of Terria, but at the same time I’ve heard it now to the point where I’m just like, “Ok, I don’t want to repeat that.” I want to do something a little bit different. The next solo record I do will be infinitely different than “Accelerated Evolution.” Every year brings new stimulus, and each stimulus brings new music.

 

 

Are you writing now?

Yep.

 

 

What type of stuff are you working on?

Well, I think the next record is going to be like a musical, kind of over the top and really challenging musically.

 

 

What is Steve Vai’s role in it?

He asked me to sing some stuff on his new record, and I said, “Only if you play on mine.” He agreed, and there we go.

 

 

Do you already have it written?

I’m in the formative stages of it, but I have quite a few ideas for it floating around now.

 

 

It’s definitely something to look forward to, but you’ve got quite a long itinerary touring now? Are you pretty geared up to hit the road with Meshuggah?

Yeah, I’m ready for it. Tomorrow’s the first show. It ought to be interesting. They’re a great band. I look forward to hanging with them and talking with them. Let’s just hope it’s a success.

 

 

Getting back to the new album, one of the recurring themes for me at least was the line from “Seventh Wave”, “You’re never alone even when you’re alone…”

Yeah, I think that’s kind of the way it is just in life. I think a scene throughout the lyrics that I’ve always written is kind of a separation from the things that are truly important. I think that kind of is a reaffirmation, man. Even when things are at their lowest, everything is still unified in its own way, even when you’re as separate from it as you can possibly be. At the root of it, at the zen basics of it, everything is still one.

 

 

On a lighter note, “Random Analysis” was a pretty interesting track…

The thing with “Random Analysis” is more like what I’d say if I was pissed off at somebody as opposed to lyrics that I would necessarily want to write for a song. Hey, they’re already written so there you go.

 

 

It’s catchy, though. It’s still heavy.

Yeah, it’s an interesting one. It’s kind of like, “Dude, don’t be saying that shit!”

 

 

“Suicide” is definitely a powerful track…

Thank you. “Suicide” is not about killing yourself necessarily in terms of putting a gun to your head. It’s just the everyday dirge of life. It’s slow death on a certain level.

 

 

But it can also be rebirth too…

Absolutely! Death, rebirth. Suicide can also be willingly getting rid of things about your personality that slows you down. You know, certain elements of your ego that just make you waste time. Let’s view it as a happy thing, shall we? (laughs)

 

 

The vocals seem to be a lot more melodic, but also more expressive.

Yeah, I kind of just wanted to sing on this record. A lot of times I’ve been put in this dubious position of being a singer so with this record I just wanted to say, “Ok, I can definitely do it so here you go.”

 

 

There were parts too that hinted at the “Sex and Religion” album.

Absolutely. It’s all coming around full circle. As I grow into my career a little more I’m finding that every step of my development musically has been important. To a certain extent, sometimes it’s important to revisit it. The Steve Vai thing, I don’t think I had completely processed it at the time. Now having a chance to sort of analyze it, it’s cool.

 

 

When you first started doing Ocean Machine, did you think you would have such a long string of solo records?

Oh yeah. I’m actually surprised that there’s been this many Strapping Young Lad records because the Ocean Machine thing was never a question. When I was younger, that’s what I always wanted to do, that kind of sensitive without being angry but still really powerful kind of music. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy Strapping Young Lad because I really do. I really enjoy that type of vicious energy. Again, it’s all part of the same brain.

 

 

It’s the Yin and the Yang of Devin…

Absolutely!

 

 

I know Ocean Machine had the sort of water element surrounding it and Terria had the earth element. What would you liken this album to?

Either ice or crystal, something like that. Maybe mercury or something. Crystal maybe, I like that.

 

 

So is the Devin Townsend Band lineup permanent?

At this point until somebody either has it better off with their own band or fucks up somehow. We’re just going to pound through and see what we can do. We’re coming down to America in August to do a tour so hopefully it will be cool. It seems good. Everybody seems to be really cool in the band. They’re all good musicians. It’s a lot of fun.

 

 

Did DTB go over well in Europe?

Yeah, it did. Some German shows were not so good, but for the most part it was excellent. It was a great tour.

 

 

Did you guys write a lot as a band?

No, DTB is pretty much me, but I have good musicians to play my music. Because they were in relatively unknown bands at the time, they were sort of willing to do that for me. As a result, it works kind of in both directions.

 

 

Is this next solo album going to be with the Devin Townsend Band?

I think so, yeah, with a bunch of guests. That’s going to be a cool project.

 

 

Do you have anyone else lined up that you can mention?

Well, I mean I’m just going to keep meeting people. I’ve met lots of people, and when the time comes I’m just going to spring it on them that they’re going to be on my record and they don’t have a choice. (laughs)

 


Band Website:  www.hevydevy.com