Devin Townsend Interview
by Ashlinn Nash
Photos by Jo Blackened
Devin Townsend is a musician prized for his wizardry and creative integrity.
With a back catalogue ranging from the extreme metal influenced Strapping Young lad, to experimental craziness with his self release “Devlab”, right upto the soft and melancholic album “Ghost” . The variations from the Canadian, are somewhat of a creative collage, making Devin one of the most hard working and busiest musicians to date.
I managed to catch up with Devin in Century media’s London office for an exclusive face to face interview in time to question him about Epicloud and the upcoming projects as I tried to unravel the maze behind the magicians’ mind.
Hey Devin, thanks for joining us today. How are you?
Devin: I’m good, but could do with a descent cup of coffee, it change your whole outlook right (laughs)
Retinal circus is out next week with lots of anticipation to go with it, what can we expect?
Devin: A fucking good time! Because ultimately that’s what I want people to come away from it with it’s like. I’ve always wanted to make a musical or in the future make musicals but this is more like high school musical where we have a limited budget and we’ve got people helping and whatever. It kinda will hopefully evolve into is Retinal will be the beginning of “this is what we can do with nothing” and then hopefully in the future we can do something really absurd and blow a lot of money on.
Where did the concept come from?
Devin: Essentially management said we know you wanna make this sort of statement musical theatre thing, so this is an opportunity for you to start this and what would your thoughts be?
I thought first off, well we could all of Epicloud or whatever and then it became a bit, ah well you could, and the idea started to come.
Using it as a retrospective as you have so many records then to make a story out of that, the records have all sort of this…this my life of course so they said why you don’t make it about that.
I said well that’s interesting thematically but level of narcissism I just can’t hang with (laughs).
What I did instead was make a story where i’m a character, and I think if it works then I think it could be really sweet. If it fails it’ll be hilarious (laughs) you know!
The amount of things that could go wrong are just so…so many that you know I’ve stopped officially worrying about that, because it’s going to happen whether or not I worry about it, so I might as well get some fucking sleep right (laughs).
It’s going to be awesome I just really want people to have a good time and I really want people to have three hours they can really get something out of.
There is an intermission/pee break, I think it’s cool it’s going to be awesome. It’s expensive and people have so much anticipation for it now that if we didn’t do something for it now, like show up for forty five minutes with a tuba people will just be like…yeah…you know what I mean.
Well it sounds impressive!
Devin: Yeah if you had a big bubble coming out it or something (laughs).
We’ve kinda amidst all the touring and all the recording, and everything we’ve had to do which is a lot; we’ve had to put this together. The way we’ve done it is, we have had about four groups of people each group is responsible for a certain thing like the band and myself work on the music. Then me and some other people work on the computer things and then there is a visual guy and then the acrobatics and you know there is a tonne of shit, but because we’ve never done it all together. So, what I did was make a template at home where I put it together with dialogue and stuff like this and then we rehearsed to that template individually so conceivably, we’ll do it together and it will work. Then again conceivably we could have all been rehearsing to complete separate things and then we finally put it together and then it could be an epic face palm (laughs).
Is that why you have the two warm-up shows?
Devin: Yeah, I mean the two warm-up shows for me are for the sake of switching gears really, I’m not very good at that, just in general. You know like with the temperature and that, going from one activity to another, so having the opportunity to do a couple of shows puts me back on stage in front of people, so that sort of hang-up of switching gears is you know going to be part of this thing that’s full of fucking problems so you know (laughs)
I’m as interested as anybody else as too watching it, I’m just afraid I’m going to be distracted while playing it you know. We’ve got two rehearsals before it starts so you know, at the Roundhouse so hopefully we can get some of that out of our systems before we do it in front of people. I hear the venue is really cool, we’ve got a lot of people putting in a lot more effort than they need too and that is a real vote of confidence for me because that makes me think people are as passionate about it as me, and to have that is really above and beyond any success or failure of it, means a lot right.
There are a lot of people who want it to be awesome and I also think the audience are really coming into as well wanting it to work, so it’s not like we’ve got a bunch of people all just going to have their arms crossed waiting for us to fail.
It’s the same thing with the four shows [Ki, Addicted!, Deconstruction and Ghost – November 2011] which where propelled by everybody right ultimately I mean shit is just so gloomy that, it’s like ‘Hey let’s go check it out see if we have a good time’. We’ve got a lot planned we’re trying to do something different for each song specific that goes through this story but you can imagine the logistics of that right? It’s a good start, I mean I hope go, ‘Hey look what they can do with that!’, hopefully somebody with a big fat cigar will be all; ‘Hey I wanna give you guys so much money to blow, you can’t keep any of it that’s the deal , but you can blow it as much as you want !’ (laughs).
where did the album name come from?
Devin: We were flying, we’ve been flying so much lately and we left it was either Vancouver or London or something and it was miserable weather; just as Vancouver and London tend to be right?! But then, once we got over the clouds everything was just nice and I thought that was kind of an interesting thought, where you get past all the shit and things are always just sunny.
At first I liked the idea of being above the clouds right with the Epicloud, and then I thought oh it’s a play on words we could make a really loud epic record so technically it’s both things.
What was the song process like for the album?
Devin: Easy, it was the recording that sucked!
Iin order to make it sound the way I felt it should, which I think we got pretty close to, it just required me to learn a bunch of technical things that very good at, so a lot of hitting my head against the wall and trying to get a certain amount of low-end on the snare drum and all that shit, it’s fucking brutal right!
The amount of layers on it and choirs and all that, it was a hard record to mix but to write it, it was all blah, blah, blah.
With Epicloud I needed to do it because there’s been this eighties rock mentality that I’ve always had that has seeped its way into everything I’ve done. Strapping young lad, and with everything I’ve done has had this Def Leppard slant that I can’t seem to just shake, but I’ve never actually done it all in just one place. With the production and those big kinda structures, suspended second chord kind of thing with the echoed guitars, and all the layers of what has been attributed to do.
It has been there, but it has not been in one place so I think it was important for me to do this because what I hope to choose to do in the future.
I don’t think it has much room for that currently and I didn’t want that to start leeching its way into this next thing, so doing it all in this one big like epic, totally over the top thing.
If it comes across as cheesy fuck it, and then put more cheese on it (laughs).
It’s like the video, for lucky animals, where I dance like an idiot! It’s like what can people say you going to tell me it’s cheesy, well fuck I had the fifteen layers of cheese and added more gouda (laughs)
What else do you want to tell me about it? It is one record of a lot and it’s what I do in my opinion I find a element of the record that I find interesting and try and take it as far as it will go, so if it’s brutal then I find myself taking these brutal sentiments like with Alien or what have you to this place and it’s like Holy fuck! Same With Epicloud I knew it needed to be this way so we took it as far as it could possibly go.
Same with Casualties of cool, which is haunted country music and like the Johnny Cash thing, so I’m taking in what is required for that it’s this type of production.
This type of aesthetic it’s this type of sound and as far as that wants to go I’ll come into it and once it’s done then sit back and worry about whether people will like it or not.
It’s the same with Epicloud when I was finished with that, I was sitting back from it going; now you can worry, don’t worry while you’re doing it you know and what it’s supposed to be, but then when it’s done if you feel the need to stress over it then do it.
Afterwards it’s like; What if people don’t like it? And then when it came out suddenly I’m worried about something else… fuck it!
Each one of the albums, or the period I was making it was the most interesting thing I could possibly imagine. When I did Epicloud it was exactly what I felt like doing, same with all the other things it’s like, that’s why I finish it because I’ve got a compulsion to do something, because I’m really intrigued by it whether it is the concept or the lyrics or the vibe it’s trying come across, and that’s really my focus until it’s done and then after that it’s like forget about it.
Kingdom was re-recorded for the album, how did this come about?
Devin: I never liked how Physicist sounded as I always thought it sounded bad sonically.
If you hear it on the wrong system it’s just loads of low and lots of high. I made a bunch of mistakes with my life at that point that I was really depressed, so I didn’t put the energy into production and the vocals.
There are some people that like that record because it came about at a time and they have memories attached to it and I totally relate to that.
For me, I didn’t like the sound of it from the minute it was out, I was always like I wanna re-do this and I want to re-do that, but the lyrics for Kingdom where so apologetic, at the time it was so much about a relationship, that such an apology and just so morose that fifteen years later when you manage to sort those things out and you manage to reconcile at least in your own mind why you made the decisions that you made or why you feel how you feel.
Sometimes those songs take on a new meaning and Kingdom went from being a apology to an affirmation for me I guess.
When we were out performing it I found vocally taking a perspective on it, the real one is morbid and you know, so this was a good opportunity to re-record it and I think having Anneke on there. Producing it at a level that is more mid-range is great, I think if it catches you in the right frame of mind you’re just like what the fuck man?! I guess that’s what the whole thing with Epicloud is, I wanted a record where people go woah.
With Angel when I was recording it, I had a problem finishing it, as it was just fucking me up every time I heard it, its like intense and the same with kingdom it’s just intense, of this one particular type of emotion and a little bit of that goes a long way and towards the way I had, had enough.
I was going, but I’ve got to get the snare right Arghhhh.
Then when it was finished I listened to Epicloud , listening to it loud I was like: ah fuck, I think this is a romantic record but it’s like heavy so the combination of those two I just find really exhausting so by the time I got to the end I loved it but I was like; ok… good, move on.
So Casualties of cool this next thing is just not exhausting.
In fact I think if you’re not into my whole trip and how it’s arched, you’re going to find it boring and backwards background music, but right now I’m just obsessed.
For me everything has just been so epic and pay attention to me (laughs) and now after these four records and Epicloud I’m like ;I’m not that interested in you.
I’m at that point in my life where I’m the least interesting thing in my life for me.
I remember when I was like twenty-two or whatever where I was just incredibly interested in me, my own thoughts and my own process and those thoughts of things, now I’m just over it. Casualties of cool is just exactly what I wanted to hear right now because it’s music that doesn’t demand anything, when you listen to it its saying exactly what it needs be saying but more subtle.
It’s really dark, among the darkest things I’ve done and it doesn’t say it loudly and I think that is a lot more effective right, because you other times the tough guy is considered posturing and at the root of it they’re not really that tough, but I like the sentiment saying exactly what they need to be saying but not feeling the need to have to say it loudly.
Anneke is on the new record, how did you two meet?
Devin: She sent me an email! She was like here’s me singing one of your songs, I was like ‘Ahhh shit!’, because I’ve got a record right now.
I always write for female vocals and I guess ever since Enya I’ve always just loved soft female vocals. I think I’ve got an affective voice but I don’t like to sing, it hurts man, I’d much rather just play guitar, I dislike singing quite a bit actually.
I find I write for other peoples voice a lot of the time and you know I prefer the sound of the female singer sounding gentle over the top of heavy music, it seemed to just be appropriate.
She sent me the youtube video of Hyperdrive and I was like: oh that’s it you’re doomed, come do this and she’s good we get along well.
We’re the same age and she’s got kids and so do I and there’s none of the drama.
We have the common focus which is making music sound strong.
I think a lot of the reason Anneke and I have got a good relationship is because there’s not a lot of you know interpersonal drama. It is not like we’re trying to conjure up a relationship between the two of us through music we’ve been there and done that.
The lack of that I think puts it outward as opposed to drama happening , when we’re up on the stage which I musically I hope that music can be written for the sake of experience that everybody can kind of be involved with as opposed to being shown somebody’s interpersonal male/female drama , I don’t think that’s as engaging. Y
ou have a strong female, strong male and there you go let’s fucking do this!
What made you decide to do the project albums as individual gigs over four days last year?
Devin: I don’t really know! I’ve found there are a lot of things I’ve been doing recently and I’m like: how did we decide to do this again?
We’re doing a circus, we’re doing individual gigs and I tend to feel that the way we’re structured what we do allows things to happen naturally. I think, and before you know it we’re committed to these crazy events that we had no idea how we’re going to pull off or why we decided to do it in the first place, and this circus is the pinnacle of that.
We’ll see if it ultimately is really a great thing for us, I think the willingness to fail is what defines all of this at this point. We keep being put in these positions where it’s like a fuck up can be so epic that you know why we would even consider doing It, but by doing it we can move past it.
That fear of embarrassment and the fear of being seen has been such an omnipresent, not only part of what I do but part of the scene in general.
Everybody’s afraid to be seen as vulnerable or seen as emotionally capable to express emotion that’s not violent or hateful or aggressive this is typically reserved for other musical styles. I think that love is the most dangerous of all emotions, because it’s the thing that leads to all violence and all that vulnerability to be seen as vulnerable through admitting that you have that emotion that is like the core of your being is terrifying because all of a sudden you’re in a position where it can be taken away.
I mean ultimately you’re afraid of dying or you’re afraid of this or that, so I think that making heavy music about love is at least at this point in my life very important because I didn’t realise how afraid I was of it. It’s a heavy emotion, with all these wars and everything is all routed in that.
So I don’t know I think it’s important to confront a fear of failure, or a fear of success love, embarrassment or whatever. then just be embarrassed and fail, because once that’s done then you’re good (laughs).
I always say stupid shit but then when you read it you think: well what should I feel about this? You should feel nothing, don’t do that again you know, move on.
You read so much on yourself and thing, someone’s going to say why I should care what you’re doing I’m like: fucked if I should know at this point, because there are puppets (laughs).
You like puppets right, right, right ?? (laughs) well there are tonnes of puppets!
You’ve worked with such a variety of musicians over the years; have any of their writing styles, ways of working rubbed off on you?
Devin: All of them! Of course Vai’s guitar playing, Ginger’s song writing and I mean everyone!
Fear Factory! I loved them when I first heard Soul of the new machine, when I heard them I went ‘I wanna do that!’. I’d be inclined to think that what I do musically is more like a collage of the things that I’m interested in, more so that anything. I’ve put it together in a way that is unique in its own way, but I’m a product of all that stuff.
On Epicloud, there is a song, where I met up with the Pendulum guys, and they played me a song and I was like ‘I love that song!’ Then they showed me the four chords and I asked if could I use them, and they said well sure! So I wrote a song, I sent Rob an email, saying ‘So, I did this can I say that it’s your structure and use it and so credit where credit is due!’
You put it together in your own way and I like the idea of taking pictures of things that I like and making a face out of it (laughs)
Ziltoid is back, how did he come about in the first place?
Devin: I quit smoking weed and I quit drinking and we had a baby!
I realised that a lot of the things I had previously assumed, where some sort of mental illness and me just being crazy were more of a product of some people should smoke weed and others just shouldn’t. So all of a sudden,all of that started draining out of my system and started clearing up a bit I guess (laughs).
I think the thing with this industry and this career, even at the level that I’m at, it’s easy to forget who you are, not who the audience think you are. Like mad scientist Dev, or crazy guy or wacky self-deprecating Dev or whatever.
I mean all that stuff is what sells magazines right, if you have an interview with the crazy guy its easier to sell than a guy saying : Oh I cut my lawn today, this is my tenth record, but with me it’s like: No he’s crazy!
I think towards the end of strapping young lad, it was easier for me to start believing that end of it thinking maybe you shouldn’t be doing drugs. So when I quit doing it I was thinking, ‘Well what if I’m not actually crazy at all?’ and so Ziltoid started becoming this thing.
I loved Dark Crystal as a kid, I wanted to do puppets ever since then but I couldn’t find an excuse to do it, but then I thought it would be fun to separate myself from that sort of persona, that strapping young lad guy.
Let it become a puppet right as a metaphor I thought it was interesting, he’s a puppet! (Laughs). So yeah that was it, I got this big chunk of clay and started making this puppet who looked like someone from Dark Crystal with the googly eyes. Every time I looked at him I kept hearing, dun dala da da….Ziltoid as his theme song. I thought I could make a record and now I can afford to make a puppet.
So, yeh that’s what I did! I think it’s interesting talking about it that no matter what way you choose to make your art, I honestly think what you mean to say will come out in that way, and by the end of Ziltoid it had evolved to you’re a puppet but you’re drugs, strapping or whatever and thinking oh yeah that’s why I made the puppet.
I saw a documentary on iron maiden the other day and how they had Eddie as this mascot and everything, I think that’s fun too have Ziltoid as this kind of character that can evolve and make a really cool puppet out of him eventually.
Extending that, again now that I’m writing for another Ziltoid technically record I’m finding it a little difficult to extend that concept much further. He’s even more puppetier on this record.
What I’m finding is that there was a certain style I was working on with that record with certain arpeggios, with heavy but sort of Sci-fi vibe, so I’m thinking that if I do a new puppet which I absolutely wanted to do then the music will support the puppet, as supposed to the puppet supporting the music, and maybe all this other chaotic music I’ve been writing recently, will be something separate from Ziltoid…I don’t know.
That’s where he currently stands, I see him with animatronics in the eyes and a three –point Swedish chef guy thing with people doing the hands and yeah it’ll be awesome.
What I was thinking would cool is have him do a show where I interview bands, because I know a lot so to have them do an interview with Ziltoid, I could illustrate the interviews with tonnes of oddball music and I think that could be funny.
It’s way more interesting to me that doing another record, and now he’s going after more coffee right. I’d defiantly like to, when I’m inspired to do something I go for it if it’s kinda like this where I think I could do this Ziltoid record but I mean what is it going to be about or I could do a TV show and to me that makes much more sense. Whichever way it compels me to go, I’ll go right, but sometimes the direction of it changes in the eleventh hour.
What has been your favourite album to write out of the project albums or entire catalogue?
Devin: The one that isn’t out yet, the one I’m working on, it was Epicloud and then it’ll be Casualties of cool and then I’m sure it will be Z2! The Album that I’m finished with.
How do you find time to do everything, tour, have a family, record label, write new material?
Devin: I don’t! I spend a lot of time when I’m not trying to hold it together in interviews I’m in fatal position (laughs)
My life is fucking crazy you know! It’s like I’d love to put across the impression that I’m managing it really way, like my personal life of course not it’s a fucking disaster at all times, but that disaster gives me tonnes of material to write about so it’s this weird kinda perpetual thing so blood for punishment perhaps.
As I get older it takes me a long time to figure things out, maybe once I do come to the conclusion as to why I do the things I do, I’ll be like Ah ok let’s stop. Until that time I’m grasping at straws saying it’s because of this so far every time I like grasp onto something I write a record about it.
Devlab; which is one of the harder records to listen to, will you go back to that sort of writing again?
Devin: I had two people in my life who couldn’t listen to it, two people in bands where I’d play it and they’d be like I just can’t listen to it, but I think that’s the thing I find more confusing or intriguing about me is that I don’t know myself. Intrinsically I understand myself I let myself do these things but the depth of how dark it can get is like shocking to me still, on this casualties of cool record there are a series of songs that are sadistically dark but it’s really easy to go there.
With Epicloud it was really easy to make this joyful hard rock record so with Devlab when I’m making stuff like I know where we can go with it and stuff. Then before you know it you’ve carved yourself a hole were you go oh my god, that was similar with Alien too. So I think I don’t attribute the music I write to me you know I feel more like I work.
Whichever avenue I find myself in the groove for like I go to the end, then at the end I try and figure out whether or not I like it.
There are a lot of times at the end where I’ll just be like what the fuck! Like with Epicloud I remember listening to it thinking what is this? Same with Alien same with all these records, Casualties of cool right now, I thought oh it’s going to be simple to do the country thing but it’s so dark, like I mean dark!
The lyrics that come easiest are sadistic and in the past with ‘Alien’ I didn’t curb that I just let that be sadistic and that can cause you tonnes of problems because you’re defined by that, and then with Epicloud it was so easy for it to go to the queasy like spiritual thing and I didn’t stop that either and that defines you in that sense which is ok except for what comes next.
Casualties of cool is super dark so I kind of feel like I’m leading people down the garden path with this stuff right which is again not the intension, I’m like well that’s interesting and before you know it you’re just like oh shit what did I just make?
Devlab was something when I was making I was like here, we go here with this and there is this one section where it’s just like relentless destruction, but while it was happening I was just I know what this needs…a scream we’ll stretch that for like two bars and make people feel horrible and then when it was done I was like…Perfect!(laughs).
Then all of a sudden someone’s like I feel horrible listening to this, then I was like ah shit, it’s the same with Epicloud, there are some songs on there where people go it makes me feel really elated and I was like oh wow, I guess that was what we were trying to do but more than in an intention trying to that’s where it led.
I guess my reason for quitting drugs and drinking, wherever I go now I have nothing to blame for it, like you went there because you were on that.
So with Casualties of cool, I think it’s confusing because I think why did you feel the need to do that? The difference with it is that it purposefully makes you feel a certain way, it does it in a very quiet and comforting way, which is weird because with Devlab or Alien or whatever it makes you feel that way but you go woah!
Like with infinite number you think that’s horrible, Casualties of cool does the same thing but in a really nice way it’s like wow that’s really nice.
With the Epicloud record there is this empty suit and it’s supposed to be me, but I’m not there.
It’s like this big party and we are the world, so with casualties of cool it’s like the person in the suit is basically on the moon watching all the shit go down and all he’s got to keep him company is this old radio that plays all these dead songs from the fifties that sound like old time music. The voices are dead , they don’t exist, like nothing is there and everything has this echo on it that just sounds like you’ve spent so much time trying to figure out this shit, that you’re completely isolated there is nobody but you and you’re watching all this stuff and it’s like horror!
But it’s really nice because you have this little thing to keep you company, but every time now and then it blacks out and you’re like woah put it back. I love it, but there are a couple of lines on there that are really rotten!
Thank you so much for your time today Devin!
Devin: Thank you !!
There is no doubting that Devin is a musical genius and incredibly humble about it, making him a very enjoyable person to talk to. Epicloud is available now via HevyDevy Records along with Casualties of cool is due for release early next year!