Interview by Peter Atkinson
Pics courtesy of INSIDEOUT MUSIC & www.hevydevy.com
Vancouver’s Devin Downsend may be the closest thing modern heavy music has to Frank Zappa, but these days he’s feeling more “Def Leppard.” His latest effort, Epicloud, with the Devin Townsend Project, was issued Sept. 18 and is some of the most accessible work he’s ever done. And along the way he discovered an affinity for pop music.
Yet it didn’t start out that way. Indeed, Epicloud ended up being the polar opposite of what Townsend intended when he set out to write the album, which was envisioned an over-the-top continuation of the already over-the-top Ziltoid The Omniscient sci-fi/comedy/rock opera. But as his grandiose ideas kept mysteriously morphing into catchy pop-metal anthems, he decided to take the ball and run with it.
But Townsend has always works in mysterious ways. Over a 20-plus year career he’s been a veritable chameleon, adapting to the many colors of the hard rock/metal palette with a deranged whimsy that is equally parts daring, provocation and attention deficit disorder. Even during his 10-year run heading industrial metal cult legends Strapping Young Lad there were side projects as varied as the prog/pop/metal/polka fusion of Synchestra, the big rock of Accelerated Evolution and the ambient Devlab, either as a solo performer or with the offshoot Devin Townsend Band.
And since disbanding Strapping in 2007, he’s continued to explore the fringes — indeed even outer space with Ziltoid — on the sonically disparate Ki/Addicted/Deconstruction/Ghost “quadrilogy” issued by the Devin Townsend Project over a two-year stretch from 2009-2011 that saw Townsend emerge from a period of writer’s block with the most creatively fertile period of his career. That has continued on with Epicloud.
But don’t get too comfortable with Townsend’s new-found commerciality, because what could come next is anyone’s guess – including him own.
I know you’ve been doing these for like three days straight, so apologies in advance if you’ve heard most of these questions already.
Yeah, I’ve kinda got the routine down. I’m such a mouthpiece anyway that usually on the first question I just start to ramble and then by the end of it people are just like, “Well, I guess that’s all I wanted to ask.” So hopefully they got what they were after, even if I didn’t give them the chance to ask the questions they wanted. (laughs)
You didn’t get stuck in an office in L.A. or New York all week, did you?
No, I’m home in Vancouver. I’ll be here for another nine or 10 days. And it’s been kind of a nice break between the record, which was finished a month or so ago, and the tour [of the U.S. and Canada with Katatonia and Paradise Lost, which just wrapped, and Europe with Fear Factory that kicks off in mid-October], that pretty much takes us through to Christmas. So it’s been nice to spend some time with the family, and get my ducks all in a row for when I do go away. So I’m happy for the time I’ve got here, even if that means spending part of my day in front of a speakerphone.
Are you getting back to any sort of “normal” schedule or level of productivity now that the four-album set is done and you’re back to doing one album at a time?
I think the potential for it to even out is on the horizon. But I’ve been asked this question several times about my tendency of having so much work going on in my life and what the implications are and to be honest, I’m 40 years old. I’ve been doing this professionally for 20 years, the fact that I’m able to do this, and at this point things are better than they ever have been, now is not the time to sort of put my feet up. If I’ve been able to carry on that level or productivity for this long, then I should be able to carry it on until, legitimately, I’ve got the opportunity to change the level of pace.
It’s important for us now, on the 50-yard line here, to put it in gear, as opposed to freaking out about this, that or the other thing. Now is not the time for an existential crisis, now is the time to take into mind the reasons how you’ve managed to get where you are at this point and just keep going.
I spoke with you when Addicted came out about the your career ups and downs, and you mentioned that you had a way of sabotaging things when they were going good. Is the object now that things are going good to not sabotage them?
Absolutely. In fact, I had a conversation about that last night with a buddy of mine. Because I find that that element of me, that self-sabotaging element, is rooted, I personally think, in a fear of not only success but also failure. So that puts you in a position where you don’t really want to put your neck out for the fear of it being cut off, right?
But at the same time, I think a record like what we’ve just completed, Epicloud, makes it perfectly clear in my mind that I’m willing to do that for the first time. And whatever defeating mechanisms are at play in my psyche, and chances are they will always be there, at least now I’m able to at least recognize that and not incorporate those insecurities into my decision-making process.
I think it’s fine for me to think about these things and wonder why or what if and all the kind of neurotic elements of my process that have always been there. I think it’s fine to analyze that, but when it comes to the brass tacks of what you need to do, I’ve made these decisions. There’s not a question about my motivations at this point. I want to do this, I want to make big, epic, cool, music, I want to entertain people, I want to play shows. That’s what ultimately is the decision, and any of these other kind of murmurings in my world or my mind are just things that you’ve gotta work through. No big deal.
Covering as extreme a spectrum as you have musically already over your career I guess gives you a bit of a cushion? People know to expect the unexpected.
Sure, but I think perhaps the irony of this new record is it’s almost the furthest I’ve gone out by making something that’s accessible. I think that that mechanism that we talked about a minute ago, about that sort of sabotage, has often prevented me from doing just a straight up cool record that is compliant to the listener – to make something that is a good listen and a rockin’ record without that sort of emotional drama that it’s imposing on the audience.
On the surface, I would have never thought that would be a risky move, but by doing it on autopilot, which is how I operated on this record in particular, I realized once it was done, it was like “Wow, without thinking about it you didn’t sabotage this one and what you ended up with is a record that perhaps people are gonna like.” (laughs)
So as I said a minute ago, all these thoughts, all the processes and analysis that I’m just kind of wired to do are just going to have to go and for me to make those processes so public that they become the basis of what I write the music about, it’s just not interesting to me anymore and I would hazard a guess not that interesting to an audience either.
Now that the quadrilogy is in the taillights, are you more exhilarated or exhausted by the experience?
I can’t actually comment too extensively on that just because the pace that we’re rolling at is so intense that any sort or recollection about what it is or what it isn’t, I just haven’t had the time for. The one thing that I am aware of is because my process has always been the current music I write is a direct reaction to what came before, the new record is connected to that quadrilogy, if you want to call it that, based on spending some serious time trying to understand it and by coming to a conclusion of what I was trying to achieve with those four records, which in a nutshell was conquering or getting over these sort of fears that I might have had artistically or personally, that being able to actualize those records has led me to a record like Epicloud which essentially was like, “OK, I’m over it, what’s next?”
There’s not like this continuum of “all right, now that we’ve made these dramatic personal statements, let’s do another one.” Musically, I think I learned a lesson from those four that has allowed me to make a record that isn’t about me. And I think that, just on a personal level, it’s really, really satisfying to be able to listen to something without feeling like “Wow, I’m swimming upstream in a river of my own semen.”
Yeah, that might get a bit old.
(Laughs) I think a lot of times, if you have done those sort of things for your whole career, it’s easy to forget that that drama ultimately becomes comfortable and you don’t want to leave it because it’s all that you know. The option of making something like Epicloud that is commercial in its own way, commercial in terms of my output, is a little more risky than just saying, “Well, I’m just going to go into another isolated corner of my own artistic psyche and write some pseudo profound thing about that.” That would have been easy, what was much more difficult for me was going, “Well, here’s a record about being over it. Can you do it?”
Were you pleased with the response to the quadrilogy, did people seem to get what you try achieve?
It’s two-sided. The first side is they were made from an honest perspective. I made them because I wanted to make them, so regardless of whether people liked them or not, it doesn’t change how I feel about them. However, how did people feel about them? Overall, I think people really liked them.
What I found the most gratifying is that some people loved one and hated another. I find that as sign of the success of it because I love them all, or like them all, equally. The fact that certain elements of my nature that are honestly trying to represent a certain thing to its conclusion worked really well for some people and didn’t work for others, and I think that it means they are accurate.
On the other side of it, when I did Deconstruction, because it was fairly cataclysmic, there’s this faction of folks, and rightfully so, I’m certainly not saying this is like a deficit in their personality, who will never let Strapping go. To explain that in a way that makes sense in my current frame of mind, to continue to do something for the sake of other people who have an emotional investment in something you did from the bottom of your heart and you’re not doing it from the bottom of your heart, you’re just doing it to please them, you are a fucking poser as far a I’m concerned. And if anyone wants you to be that, for their sake, I think maybe those people need to analyze what they want out of music.
Do you want someone to tell you the truth, or do you want someone to represent something that they are no longer feeling in order to appease you? If you’re doing that, it’s just a martyr syndrome. And all these tortured artists who are like, “I’m doing it for the fans,” fuck that, man. I’m not that guy. I’m a 40-year-old dude, I’m not doing anything for the fans, I’m doing it for myself.
Did Deconstruction appease the Strapping fans? As a Strapping fan myself, it did the trick for me.
I think that puts you in the minority. (laughs) When I did Deconstruction, that faction of folks who really loved Strapping were like, “Well, here we go, he’s gonna be doing the heavy thing again.” While I was making Deconstruction I was very proud of it, because as a musical entity, this is where I’m at where it comes to heavy music right now, this is 100 percent where I’m at. And then when it came out, the reaction from some people was, “Hey, I get it. This is really cool.” But that camp, the Strapping camp, were like, “This is shit! This kind of like awkward, random heavy metal thing that isn’t want we wanted. It’s nor Strapping.”
At that time, initially, I was confused, because I thought it was a cool, heavy record. And when it wasn’t accepted as being enough like Strapping, like “nope, nope, that’s not gonna work,” it was really liberating for me. I was like, “Oh really, so me being as honest as I can with heavy music as a 40-year-old man isn’t still going to work, well forget it. I’m going to make a pop record.”
Ultimately, why making Epicloud was so liberating for me was because it was like, “Well, OK, if I’m not allowed in the club anymore, then shit, I might as well go sound like Def Leppard.”
The material on Epicloud captures much of the spectrum that you covered over the the four previous albums, were the songs born out the writing that went into them or was this a fresh start?
I guess I was convinced that after the four records I was going to sit down and write the second Ziltoid record. And I had a clean slate at the point, I’d basically purged everything from that project, and I was ready: “bring me some complicated metaphor music.” And then one after another I kept writing big choruses, epic ’80s sounding music.
And every time I wrote one I’d put it aside thinking, “OK, cool, you’ve got that out of your system, now go back to writing this complicated statement.” And I get up the next morning and started writing another simple rock song. And it just kept happening to the point where I had to give into it and just be like, “Well, this is obviously what you feel like writing now. As much as you may want to intellectualize the fact that maybe you’ve got a certain amount of your personality invested in being complicated or avant garde or whatever, it’s obviously not what you want to do right now. So you might as well just start with this Epicloud thing.”
So with that frame of mind, I wrote a couple dozen songs and the way I described it last night when I was having a conversation with someone was: “Epicloud started as a one-night stand that I thought was just kinda get in there and hump and then be over it, but man now we got joint checking account and a minivan and everything.”
So, in a long-winded way, it’s all new music, other than “Kingdom” [which originally appeared on Physicist in 2000]. The process of making it took way more effort than I was expecting and it was exceptionally difficult to make this thing what it is. And as a result of all these things coming together it really made me think, and I’m happy to say that the conclusions I’m coming up as to why I did it and what the future holds for me musically are very satisfying to me.
They’ve maybe been a little unnerving, where I’ve had to come to the conclusion that maybe I am more simple than I gave myself credit for. But, ultimately, it’s the same thing where if you’ve got a predisposition toward something, I think it’s best to figure it out. Because if you don’t figure it out you’re always going to be confused. If that’s where you are, that’s where you’re at. You’re good to go. Artistically, if this is where I wanted to go, instead of being afraid of it, and have it hide in the background, I wanted to know, and I do now. I like pop music.
It fits in pretty well with the four albums you just did, it does seem like a logical next step?
It’s a step that, now that it’s finished, I’m surprised it’s taking this long to get to. But I guess the thing to counter that with is I’ve got 25 records. I’ve never made a record like this. It seems silly to me in hindsight that I’ve been afraid to make a record like this because of the implications of it being, “well, you’re a sellout” or this, that and the other thing. I kind of felt that by making it I’ve had to face this strange fear of people’s perceptions of me. But after extensive personal introspection it really is not that much more complicated than, “Yeah, I love music like this.”
And I’ve always wanted to make music like this. From the first record I’ve ever done, Ocean Machine or any of the stuff, all of these elements of like my leanings toward the Def Leppard part of my personality, it’s always been there. I’m surprised to took this long to come out. However, does that mean this is what I’m going to do next? Hell no! This is where I’m at now, who knows where I’ll be when it’s time to do the next record.
Getting back to Ziltoid, is part two still in the offing?
Everything in my world musically is cresting toward this project that ultimately has Ziltoid as a major component. The project is called Z2, it’s going to be a combination of it all. For example, when we did Deconstruction we had the opportunity to work with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, and I would imagine, not that I’ve had the experience, but I would imagine that that is like heroin. Once you get a taste of it it’s like, “Holy shit, I’ve got to get me some more.”
I went to the Czech Republic and we had the orchestra for four hours and they had to sight read hundreds of pages of shit. And it was like, “OK, we’re gonna get out of it what we get out of it.” But after that, I was like, “OK, life goal acquired: To be able to make an epic, heavy, symphonic musical that incorporates the seriousness and the speed and the humor and the existential stuff that I’ve always been interested in and don’t do it in four hours. Have the orchestra for a week and a half and have it perfect.”
All these things are goals for me and to visualize them, in my mind, the whole component of Ziltoid plays a big role in that. So I’m hoping I can keep incorporating all these things that I’m interested in, and Ziltoid and orchestra being two of them, and see where it goes.
Now that you’ve done the By A Thread shows in London where you played one quadrilogy album in its entirety each night [all of which was released as a four DVD/five CD box set in June], the Ziltoid show in Finland, do you see yourself doing more of these “event” type shows instead of just doing the usual tour slog?
Well that sort of event is going to be omnipresent. These kind of one-off shows, that in and of themselves are unique, are becoming very common, if that makes any sense. You have to do stuff like that. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and if I’m lucky I’ve got a two- to three-month buffer in terms of finances. And for the most part, man, it’s month to month. I’m certainly not one to complain about the state of the industry, I’m very lucky to be in it. I don’t do this because I’m trying to buy a yacht I do it because I’m a musician.
But that being said, you have to do something cool because you can’t just pump out a disc at this point and expect to make enough money to pay the bills. You’ve gotta make something interesting for people otherwise what’s their motivation for spending money on it? I wouldn’t. As the provider of those experiences or those products, how am I supposed to sell people on it if it’s not something special? It can’t just be like, “We’re using a new shade of black on the logo, now it’s even darker!”