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Devin Townsend is something of an anomaly. A man with a background in extreme metal who has a deep love of pop music (he plays Beyoncé and Vengaboys on the PA before his gigs), his music ranges from the intensely heavy wall of sound of Strapping Young Lad to his more recent work with the Devin Townsend Project, a series of four albums with an aesthetic sensibility so far consisting of the ambient emotional essay of Ki to the more commercially accessible metal on Addicted! He’s also the only artist in the world to have released an extreme metal concept album about a coffee-loving alien overlord who attacks Earth for giving him a “fetid” cup of coffee (Ziltoid the Omniscient). The last two albums of The Devin Townsend Project, Deconstruction and Ghost, are set to be released in 2011. It was our privilege to sit down and talk to Devin for a short while.
SCAN: I wanted to talk to you first about the new album. It’s coming out in March or April over here?
Devin: There’s two of them coming out simultaneously and I think they’re coming out the end of May, actually. More towards June.
SCAN: So the tour is kind of anticipating the album?
Devin: Yeah, and as a result of that I’m starting a mix of the record today. I’m flying to Sweden in a couple of hours. There’s been so much preparation in terms of just getting the album done that we’re focusing on prior material with all the shows. Fortunately there’s 18 or so records to draw from, so there’s no lack of material and for the most part the majority of it hasn’t been heard in the UK yet, so it’s definitely going to be a cool tour.
SCAN: Well I’ve got tickets for the March one so I’m really looking forward to it.
SCAN: So I’ve read that with Deconstruction that it’s a reaction to the reception you got from Ki. That some people were critical of it because it wasn’t a heavy album.
Devin: To be perfectly honest, I would have to say that’s not the case. Deconstruction, Ghost, Addicted! and Ki were all written during the same period. And for me, I had so much to say during a period of personal change and it didn’t make sense to put it all onto one record, which would have put off a kind of schizophrenic vibe. So we figured the best bet (by ‘we’ I mean myself and the label) would be to make each record kind of distinct unto itself. So Ki into Addicted! into Deconstruction, into Ghost in honesty follows a common theme. Technically, all these records are supposed to lead into each other. So Deconstruction was something I’ve been planning for 3 or 4 years now. More than a reaction to Ki, it was a reaction to Strapping Young Lad. The things that made Strapping Young Lad important and really cool as a metal band for me I just write based on a cathartic kind of release.
SCAN: That’s what I was going to ask, actually, about the catharsis of the whole thing.
Devin: Well, you know, in a loose sense I consider myself an artist, right? My outlet has always been music so if I’m in a period where there’s emotional upheaval or, conversely, really good things happening, just by nature how I tend to represent that is just by making songs. They just tend to come out.
SCAN: Does one allow you to do the other? Like, for example, Strapping Young Lad is very aggressive and then that catharsis allows you to do something more mellow like Ki?
Devin: Well, as a result of my process being so cathartic, Strapping Young Lad was something that, I mean, it’s over now. I quit Strapping Young Lad 4 or 5 years ago and a lot of people were upset about the fact that it was over, but the thing that made Strapping Young Lad important was that it was an accurate representation of that process at the time. Saying that, though, each record I make, once it’s finished I’m able to reflect on it and say to myself “Okay – in a lot of ways you’ve solved that equation.” Like, the thing that caused that kind of emotional impetus has been worked through simply by expressing it. I mean, I was 23 when I did Strapping Young Lad and a lot of the things I was passionate about when I was 23 are, obviously, at 38 or whatever are very different. So when I finally found my way through that, you know? I had a child, quit drugs, quit drinking. So my reasons for making music kind of shifted. In that sense, Deconstruction for me is more of a reaction to my profound attraction to heavy music. Ki, Addicted! and Ghost are very much not that.
As a result of me spending so many years with Strapping Young Lad, my identity is still very invested in that kind of heavy statement, but of course at the same time I’m 22 or whatever and I’m doing interviews drunk or on drugs and it doesn’t help to compound that with pictures of me dressed up as a mad scientist. It’ll give people the kind of impression that it’s unhinged and in a lot of ways that sold it, too, but I realised after quitting smoking weed that if you’re predisposed to mental illness of any sort and you engage in any sort of drug then of course you’re going to be making creative decisions based on that mindset. Getting away from that and really trying to deal with ‘me’ as opposed to trying to distance myself from myself creatively resulted in these four statements and each one of them chronicles that kind of experience of personal change. This record [Deconstruction] is a really important one to me because it underlines why I was into that sort of music and why Strapping Young Lad existed. Yet it does it with a sense of accountability towards the reality of my world now, as opposed to this kind of nihilism.
SCAN: A sort of destructive, wanting to destroy everything mindset.
Devin: Yeah, and also wanting to get away from myself, you know? I think the reason why it’s important to me to make that statement is because when there was that sense of nihilism and that sense of escape, you know. I found recently through lives, births and deaths that come just to everybody, regardless of whether or not you’re accountable to the audience’s reaction to your music, you are accountable for your own statements as an artist. So it was very important for me, having gotten to know myself and having been confronted with these realities that I’d kind of pushed to the side for so many years that if I was going to make a heavy statement it was going to based in a kind of: say what you want to say, understand what you’re angry at, understand the nature of what your anger is and then go for it. Don’t just dip your foot into the pool. Do a cannon ball instead, say: let’s get an orchestra, let’s get a choir, get guests on the record that have a pull in terms of the legitimacy of what you’re trying to do and make a statement that’s from the heart in the same way that Ki or Ghost, or Addicted! is, but utilising that kind of musical and emotional aesthetic.
SCAN: So really you’re exploring your own relationship with heavy music on the album?
Devin: Absolutely, hence the name ‘Deconstruction.’ I’m wondering what it is about these types of sounds, what is it about this type of statements that attract me? Is it there’s truly a sabotaging element to my personality that requires me to consistently fight with myself? Or is it just strictly a love of that musical power, or does it have nothing to do with any of that? That was kind of the goal, it was just to get to the root of it because that way you can rationalise it and take it further than if you were afraid of it or either in denial of what it means to you or on some level in awe of it. Going back to what you said a few minutes ago, the best way to do that was for me to counter these statements with things that are of a complete opposite nature. Ghost, which comes out at the same time is an absolutely peaceful sentiment and it’s very new-agey, something you’d hear at a spa.
SCAN: I read in one interview that you were describing it as almost a folk record?
Devin: In a certain sense, you know? I find that as someone who enjoys stirring the pot for myself and for others as well, I found it very interesting that the record that gets a more hesitant reaction, not even musically, but just in terms of emotionally is Ghost. I think that as a result of me doing Strapping [Young Lad] for so many years and Infinity or Ziltoid or any of these kinds of musical statements that are, by nature, confusing or heavy or complicated – no matter how far I push that with Deconstruction, it’s still going to be an element that’s familiar to people. Like “Okay, there’s THAT guy” but a lot of times, the fan base may be interested in black metal or death metal or thrash metal or progressive metal. It’s like here’s something like Ghost that’s obviously coming from a place of honesty, which it is of course. But its aesthetic is so counter to that, in a lot of ways it underlines Deconstruction, because it allows me to reflect on why Deconstruction is the way it is. The other thing exists, and you know why is it and blah blah blah. I mean, honestly, I’m a nerd and I think too much.
SCAN: Join the club!
Devin: [Laughs] Well here’s the thing, you know, I went to see Buddy’s band last night and they’re this big pop band and I’m like “How the hell do you do that?” and they’re like “Well that’s just what comes out of us” and I’m like “Motherfucker!”
SCAN: But I mean some of the stuff on Addicted! is, I mean one of my friends said it sounds very poppy. Like a track like Bend It Like Bender! is, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, like Euro-pop, almost.
Devin: Well here’s the thing I was gunna say as well – that is an absolute compliment, because honestly, it’s like what do I listen to right now? God, I’ve been listening to the Deadmau5 record for like, two months.
SCAN: Yeah, Deadmau5 is great.
Devin: It is, it’s great. It’s like, I think the thing that appeals to me about music, cos when I sit down to write music it’s not like “let’s sit down and write a song” it’s like “Well, what happened this year?” Okay, well here it is. In whatever form, with whatever colour and with whatever aesthetic – this is what it is and it’s honest and some of it I’m going to like more than others because there are some years that I like more than others, right? But as long as it’s from the heart and as long as it’s actualised in the way that’s appropriate I’m 100% satisfied with it.
SCAN: Do you find it all equally easy to write, then? Like, they’re all cathartic obviously, but does that mean that you find it all equally easy because you’re just sat down with that mindset of “This is how I feel today” or is some of it more challenging than others?
Devin: The writing is equal, but the actualisation varies. For example, Deconstruction was like headache after headache after headache, because there’s such a huge amount of people and editing and file management alone takes, you know, a bottle of Advil [Ibuprofen brand], but compared to something like…well, shit, nah, they’re all difficult in their own ways. I think it’s the process of each that’s interesting so, for example, say that the technical elements of Deconstruction require 70% of the effort in terms of the recording and with maybe Ghost it took 20% of the effort. However, what kind of counters just the sheer amount of physical effort that Deconstruction took. With Ghost, it’s coming to terms with the fact that those sounds are part of your emotional make-up and coming to terms with the fact that maybe they’re not going to be accepted because they are so kind of left of what is expected in terms of heavy music. So I think that all of these records have an equal amount of energy expended on them, but where those energies are spent is different, if that makes sense.
SCAN: It does. Going back to what you were saying – in the press release I got for this interview, there’s a quote from you that says which summed up something I was going to ask you. You said you’d “never had the misfortune of being part of a clique before.” Like, when I listen to heavy metal and I know a lot of people that like heavy metal, there’s always “heavy metal” and then there’s this guy Devin Townsend that does heavy metal, but fuses it with so much other stuff that it’s almost like a genre unto itself. Is that something you’ve actively been trying to foster?
Devin: Aw shit, fuck no, man. I tell you what, my sex life has been a joke for my entire life! I tell you what, if you talk to 15-year old Devin and said “Hey man, do you wanna fit in?” I would have been like “Sure! That would be great!” [laughs]. But I mean, honestly, my desire to be a part of the clique has always been like certain people in the scene who I really like – it all comes down to fart jokes, you know, like not necessarily taking it seriously. In terms of like: dude, it’s music, it’s art and we’re here to have fun and we’re lucky to be doing it, so there you go.
One thing that is very important to me is, although heavy metal is very much a part of me, right? Like, I enjoy that power and specifically as a dynamic, you know, what has pushed me away from Strapping Young Lad, I mean, I finished all the records and I’d solved all those kind of emotional moments that were the catalyst for that type of music. I also don’t wanna be “that guy” for the rest of my life. What I’ve got to offer, musically – man, I wanna do symphonies, I wanna do pop music, I wanna do avant-garde stuff, I wanna do incredibly brutal, apocalyptic music, I want to do humour.
SCAN: I can already hear comparisons to Frank Zappa coming along in the music press.
Devin: Well it’s funny, you know, when I’m asked about Zappa, my reaction to that is: Zappa knew exactly what he was doing theoretically. Dude, I am 100% a jackass, you know. I don’t know what I’m doing. All I know is that I’m not afraid to fail. And if that means, shit, you know, I feel like putting a symphony on this one and, you know, I’m born May 5th man, I’m Taurus to the core. Can you give me a point B? I’ll find a way to get there, there’s no other option.
But I really hesitate to draw comparisons to Zappa because, really, my respect for Zappa is immense, because the guy was in complete control, you know, he had a coolness to him, he wrote his own music and he understood theory. That doesn’t really apply to me.
SCAN: So when you write you’re not thinking at all theoretically?
Devin: Dude, I think frets on the guitar, I’m like “Okay, go 7th fret to 9th fret, you know?” I don’t know notes. In all honesty, I’ve been in open tuning for so long that trying to translate my music to people who do know theory is a nightmare for both of us because I’m like “Dude, it’s a little more blue there, you know? Just feel that! Kind of a swingy vibe!”
SCAN: Does that make it difficult to find musicians who can interpret that?
Devin: Yes, and this is why Deconstruction was interesting because I consider Pro-Tools or Ableton Live to be like an instrument so, again, I hesitate to use the word “compose” because that implies all these beret-wearing fucks that truly have a lot invested in that, right? But when I jerk off onto my Pro-Tools session, I’m able to send those files to people who have a musical knowledge and patience for my jackassery and they can go through it and say “Well okay, what you’re doing there is a 16th-note arpeggio and it’s in A Mixolydian and the violas can’t actually play that note, so we’ll move that to an oboe.” So I’ve got a bunch of friends that are theoretically really advanced and are at least appreciative of the honesty that goes into these statements and are willing to help it be interpreted to the people. I think ultimately that’s what makes these things really interesting for me because it becomes a group of people that are just having fun together. Again, with Zappa and all that stuff – that’s not what I do. I mean, I can’t do that. I don’t understand what the hell he’s doing.
SCAN: I think it’d be a lazy comparison anyway.
Devin: I think it’s a safe comparison though. I mean, as soon as you start comparing yourself to Zappa the Zappa freaks are there to tear you a new asshole. So I’ve got no problems with a lazy comparison at this point!
But on the negative side with Zappa for me, I never liked his note choices. I know that may be blasphemy, but it never emotionally moved me at all. The thing that I liked about Zappa was the fart jokes and, you know, Frogs With Dirty Little Lips. I liked the humour – that was great. But in terms of the note choices. My note choices are always like suspendeds and whole tones and like seconds and like Zeppelin. I love Zeppelin, because there was a kind of monolithic sense that came with something like Kashmir or, you know, Pink Floyd and all this sort of stuff. I like the darkness, too. I think that about classical music, too, with people like Stravinsky. That was like an intense thing for me.
SCAN: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us.
Devin: No problem.