DEVIN TOWNSEND: THE EXCLUSIVE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
That my interview with Devin Townsend would be a good one was a no-brainer. The guy’s music just oozes with thought and complexity, so it wasn’t surprising at all that the brains behind the music were just the same. Townsend just released Ki, the first album in a 4-part series; we spoke about that record, what the other records in the 4-part series are like, his work in the producer’s chair over the past couple of years, the reactions of SYL fans to the new music, and of course what you’re all waiting to hear… why he shaved the skullet. Townsend also spoke at length about being true to oneself artistically as it relates to dispelling the myth of “Crazy Dev.” It was a great look into the mind of a twisted musical genius, or, as it turns out, a pretty normal, nerdy dude.
It also turns out he’s a big fan of MetalSucks and regularly enters our Funny Photo Caption Contest (though he hasn’t won yet)! So Devin, if you’re reading this… get crackin’ on this week’s contest.
Our full chat, after the fold.
Leading up to the Ziltoid project, you seem to have expressed some kind of disdain for the typical record company press cycle and touring cycle and all of that. Now that you are sort of getting back into the swing of things, do you still feel that way or are you approaching it differently this time around?
I think I’m definitely approaching it differently. I think the root of it for me is something that in all honesty I wasn’t really prepared for. I was drinking and smoking a lot of weed for years – 10, 15 years. There are some people who can do that and manage to keep themselves fine and keep a pretty straight equilibrium and manage to get all their work done. There are other folks who are predisposed with sensitivity for that sort of stuff or whatever. I just found that as soon as I quit smoking weed, for me, I found that a lot of my motivations musically in the past were based around my being high all the time. I have tons of friends who smoke all the time, and it doesn’t affect them in any direct ways. For me, I found that by the end I was reacting to my music in a way that was really steeped in paranoia. I think I withdrew from the whole thing because I wasn’t quite sure of my own motivations to begin with. I would be doing interviews or tours and people would be asking me “why are you doing this,” “why did you say that,” “why did you sing that,” “why is your music like that,” and I really didn’t have a good answer. I think on some level that I was so caught up in the routine of touring and partying that it took me awhile to realize that once I got away from that for a year or two that maybe I’m not crazy at all, maybe I was just overextended emotionally or mentally. The constant battering of my senses just didn’t really allow me [to realize] that my motivation for this was different than it was when I was 24. So I removed that from myself and cleaned my shit up and I’m leading, basically, a fun, free existence at this point. It has been really good for the music because now when I choose to do music, it is definitely exactly what I choose to do and there is no real hidden agenda to it, whereas before a lot of it was steeped in metaphor. All of it now is literally where I am at and what I mean to say. The results of that after a couple of years of relearning the process are 4 records, right? So in terms of interviews and in terms of touring now, I’m ready for whatever.
I guess that begs the question then, now that you are a little clearer-headed what are your motivations at this point?
We had a kid. I think if I hadn’t have had a kid, I don’t know if I would continue. I think I found numerous reasons that I wanted to try something different with my life. All of a sudden when the kid comes in, you realize, “what am I truly good at?” in terms of supporting a family, in terms of supporting myself, in terms of all this stuff. What are truly my talents? Am I good at anything else really? Could I just come to the conclusion here that I am made to do music? After that kind of reared its head, then I started writing based on the love of doing it again instead of some strange obligation that I felt in the past several years. I started writing everything that has come out strictly based on the fact that I love making music. I love making frequencies that shake shit down. I think these 4 records that are a part of this Devin Townsend Project give kind of a cross section of what I’m capable of and interested in doing. Something like Ki, the first record, is sort of an introduction to the whole thing, kind of an intense energy. It’s here and there in terms of its release. Sometimes it wants to get heavier, but it doesn’t allow itself. I think that is a great way to kind of introduce a thing because from there, the second record is a really heavy record, and the third record is a really REALLY heavy record. It goes through a kind of acoustic/mellow thing. Between these 4 records, I really think it gives me an opportunity to do everything that I would like to try.
Are those records written and recorded already or partially written and partially recorded or not at all?
They’re written. They’re not recorded. I’m currently halfway through the second record. We’re just doing the editing and starting the vocals next week I guess. All 4 records are written. I think there are some improvisational bits on the fourth record that I would like to revisit. In the last 3 years in this, whatever, self examination so to speak, resulted in a lot of music. As a result of that, I just feel that I am prepared to make it all happen now.
During those years you did a lot of producing and mixing. Do you think that contributed to this kind of renaissance or was it just sort of a diversion?
Number 1, I would like to be clear that I certainly don’t think it’s a renaissance. I’m not on a mission or anything. I definitely know what music means to me, and I’m happy to be doing it. I guess that’s the bottom line. Could you ask that one more time?
I guess I was just asking in what way your producing and mixing work contribute to your current state of mind?
It allowed me to kind of refine the process a bit. I’ve been in Strapping and all that for so many years. By being in a band, especially one that you were in for 10 or 15 years, you end up in relationships with grown men basically, without the fringe benefits.
So you really learn that in order to keep the boat afloat, there is a lot of give and take that you kind of have to deal with in order to just keep it going day after day. I think by producing bands, especially bands that are a lot younger than me for the most part, I was able to kind of bring some of that knowledge that I had learned from just being on the road for so long into those experiences and objectively see how it looks from the outside. I think it actually puts music in perspective because when I was doing it, sometimes you get so wound up in your own music; you think it has this real sense of importance to it. You’re like, “oh this is my music and it means this or that or the other thing”. By seeing other bands going through it as well, you are like “well every musician feels that way”. Any musician worth their salt feels that kind of passion towards their music, but ultimately, it is just music. It is just what we do. I think seeing that objectively was really a great experience for me in terms of being able to put my own shit into perspective. Also, more than that, I would think that the technical aspect of [recording] I really had a chance to refine. I worked with a lot of bands over this last 3 years – like 15 or 20 bands. Some of them are really excellent, and some of them weren’t quite so good. The ones that weren’t quite so good I had to do a lot of computer work to kind of make the record what the original intention was supposed to be. By doing that, I learned how to troubleshoot so many things that when it came to doing my own record I was like “oh shit, I got this down man”. I’ve been doing this for so many years now that the last record I really worked on on a technical level on my own, other than the Ziltoid thing was The New Black years ago. When I started working Ki and all this stuff that I’m working on now, I was just like “man I learned so much, this is great” – from a mixing point of view, and from an engineering point of view. So I guess it was like going to school for awhile.
You mentioned being in a relationship with a bunch of grown men, which lots of bands say is mentally taxing. Do you enjoy being the guy in charge and not having to really answer to anybody? Which is definitely the case on your solo records as well as probably in the producer’s chair.
Yeah. I’m a bit of a social retard. It’s hard for me to really be in close quarters with anybody. I think that my kind of control freak tendencies and everything that goes into what I do musically from the outside definitely looks like kind of a neurotic kind of creation process. Honestly, I just write and I record. There’s really no agenda to it. I’m definitely not opposed to suggestions or opposed to changes. In these 4 records that I’m doing now, I’ve included a lot of different session musicians just for the social aspect. Honestly I just usually sit in my room and just pound out music. I got a nice studio with a bunch of nice gear, but I use my iMac and an MBox more than I use the other stuff because it is a lot more comfortable for me to be in a small environment and just create. Having that social network of including other musicians definitely is something that I appreciate. In all honesty, it’s over the past 3 or 4 years I’ve become really fascinated with bass guitar.
I play bass guitar now more than anything. I think there is something to be said for that kind of foundation and that kind of support role that that takes because I kind of found myself in this position of being a leader for so long. It’s not that I can’t do it. I’m fairly good at it, but after awhile I’m like, “man I would love for somebody else to drive the boat for awhile. Here, let me play bass.” I’ve got my studio, I’ve written all these records, it’s like do them or I’ll just fester. Who knows what the future will hold? This 4 record thing may end up becoming popular, or I may become less popular, people may be interested for a second again because I’ve been out of it for awhile then realize that there was nothing there in the first place and disregard it entirely. Who knows? At the end of this 4 record thing I might be broke and have to find another career. It’s just what I do, and so I’m going to do it. If people like it, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s great. Feel free to download it and check it out. If you like it, buy a t-shirt.
Do you worry at all that some of the SYL audience won’t necessarily get what you’re trying to accomplish with a slower, softer album?
I guess so, but I don’t worry enough about it to lose sleep over it. There are 4 records, and I’ve definitely made a record for the SYL fans. The third record on this series, it’s called Deconstruction. I think that in terms of that heavy music aesthetic, it’s definitely presented there. It should keep the folks who like that happy. A lot of SYL was the dynamic of the band, but I wrote a lot of that material, sang it, and produced it. That style is definitely still with me. I’m going to give that audience something on the third record, and the more DTBS audience something on the second record, the more ambient stuff on the fourth. I like doing interviews now because it kind of gives me a chance to clarify the whole process, but you can only do what you do. You can only do it honestly. If what you do honestly doesn’t appeal to people because they’re comparing it back to an energy of something that was a product of your youth . . . Strapping Young Lad was the ages of 24-30 essentially. Now that I’m kind of closing in on 40, to reconnect with that at this point would be basically a parody of it if I did it in any other way that was dishonest. The energy that made City a great record is the same energy that makes Ki a great record. You just have to be honest where you are at.
Any thoughts about how you want to tour this record if you want to tour this record at all?
I probably won’t tour the record. I’ll probably do something after all 4 of them are done. Again, if it sells then there are ways that we can do it. If it doesn’t sell then it’s obvious that it doesn’t need to be toured. I guess we’ll wait and see. I’ll definitely do some clinic appearances – take some tapes and go into music stores and whatever and kind of present myself that way off the start. I’ll make myself available to the people who are interested in music. In terms of the full blown rock and roll tour, I’m one thing at a time and I still have 3 more records to finish before I can get to that. Short answer though is yes, there will be touring.
Cool. One last question and then I’ll let you go. I have to ask because people are wondering particularly on a website like ours which has more of a humorous angle…
I love your site. I go there every day.
Oh thank you so much!
I actually put my suggestions in for the funny caption ones, but I haven’t won yet.
What’s your handle on those? I won’t tell anyone.
I use a different one every time. I did like the one with the onions and the face on it. I thought it was awesome.
Oh that was funny because people were coming up with celery.
Yeah, I go to the site every day. It’s awesome.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. So… people are wondering why you shaved the skullet?
I think just being honest with yourself. You have to be really clear in your own mind about what your motivation for having a hairstyle that smells bad, hurts and looks retarded when you’re going to the bank to get a loan to get more ProTools gear.
I looked like Krusty the Klown and saying “I need to take out a $40,000 loan to get this stupid HD rig”. It’s just like “yeah, okay”. Every morning I woke up, my pillow was translucent. I had this disgusting shit hanging off my head. After awhile I didn’t even like the way I look. I hate the way I smell. It hurts. So why do I keep it? And I’m like, “because it is my identity”. People think of you as crazy Dev with that hair. I was doing it for everybody else. I grew it out because I was going bald and I was unwilling to let it go. So I was like “fuck you, I’m bald. Here you go.” I’m 37 now, and I’m like “you know what dude? You’re bald.” I kept it in a box somewhere.
I was going to put some of them on Ziltoid, and I was going to give some of them away.
Do a special edition of Devin Townsend Project boxset where you get one strand of hair.
Oh man there is only 16 to go around, man.
The thing is, a lot of times people who make music get hung up on the fact that their whole thing is more important than maybe it actually is. I think that leads you to do certain things with yourself and with your music and productions and all that that aren’t an accurate representation of who you really are. The hair was great. I loved it. It was definitely a certain time in my life. When I cleared shit up in my head, and again, I want to go on record saying that everything that I’ve done is not a moral thing or an altruistic thing, it’s just I wasn’t able to interview or do tours or really write music to a point because I came to a dead end. When I cleaned that shit up out of my system, I found that now things are just so obviously right. Let’s do this type of music and this type of music. Let’s make heavy stuff, let’s make mellow stuff, let’s make crushing stuff, and let’s make beautiful stuff. In all honesty, I got this crap hanging off my head, and it’s getting in my way.
Right on. Since you said you are enjoying the interviews now more sort of as a purpose to clarify things, are there any other things you care to clarify or care to get out there on the record?
I don’t really think that I was ever crazy. I think I kind of made myself crazy in a lot of ways. If you’re predisposed to any sort of shit, not even myself, like schizophrenia or bipolar or whatever, you can take all the medications in the world, but if you continue taking acid and smoking weed and drinking a bottle of vodka a night, you’re basically negating all that. I think, for me, in the past I was just so attached to that image of myself because it was lucrative to be Crazy Dev, that you do things to perpetuate that. After awhile, you just find yourself in this rut creatively because there is nowhere to go. You have to keep doing things to yourself to reconnect with something that maybe wasn’t the original motivation in the first place. It certainly doesn’t help that I had the hair and a lot of the times I’d be doing interviews and I would be whacked out of my head and giving all these convoluted answers. So of course people were like “Crazy Dev” or mad scientist or whatever. I think all of a sudden when I kind of cleared that shit out, I started realizing that maybe I was never really that crazy. Maybe I’m a lot more normal than is comfortable for me to admit to myself, but I guess once that did happen, I found that the music just ended up getting more and more focused. After sort of putting myself out as the type of musician I am for so many years, I can totally see people going “what?”
At the same time, this second and third record, they’re like, “there’s some real heavy stuff coming up”. I kind of want to be able to say with these interviews and everything that if people have questions about anything, I can say, “well I’ve got an answer.” It might be a little more embarrassing to me personally to recognize some of the answers, but I’m definitely willing to give them. In terms of the output, I think when people hear this third and fourth record from someone who is actually in a pretty clear place and is not really clouded by a lot of the shit that used to bum me out, I think they’ll say, “wow that’s actually heavier than it’s ever been because it’s more focused.” I’m able to control a lot of that chaos in a way that maybe I wasn’t before and it kind of got the best to me. Towards the end of the record Alien or a record like Infinity I just kind of got the best of me. There was so much information in my head that I ended up trying to drown it out by drinking or smoking or whatever, and then my focus that would really help the record become a really — maybe not artistically but sonically sound creation — ended up going out the window because I’m so hung up on my own trip. Again, for some people, a lot of that shit works perfectly. For me I found that in hindsight I can really get a lot more done by just having a focus. That way I can control the ProTools, I can control the computer, I can control everything. Like I said earlier, that control freak tendency is mine and I think shines when I got something to say. These 4 records including this third heavy one will make people who may have doubts on what I do musically based on Ki, maybe they’ll just be like, “oh okay, cool. What’s good for you may not be good for me, but carry on.”
Cool. For what it’s worth, I dig it. I think there’s a good portion of your fan base, probably most people, who will sort of understand it.
I appreciate that. I think it’s just funny that I’m coming out saying that “oh boy the way, I’m a fucking total nerd”. In the past, I tried to make myself look a little cooler than I actually am, but I’m a total nerd and I’m really good at what I’m good at. Now that I’ve kind of cleared myself out a bit, it’s real easy for me to get so much done in a day. I’m a lot happier as a result. Maybe the end result of this for me is to go “okay, you’re not as cool as you thought you were, but maybe who you are doesn’t necessarily need to be that cool. Maybe who you are just needs to be productive, so onward and upward man.” I’m happy and I’m happy to be doing music. I love doing music. I love metal. I love heavy music. I love quiet music. In all honesty, what I want to do in the future may end up being more of a symphonic thing or soundtrack stuff where metal is just a dynamic of it so that when it does reach that climax, it’s got that aesthetic of heavy music to drive it home. If that kind of omits me from the tried and true metal scene, then I guess maybe it’s about time that’s cleared up anyway.
Thank you so much for taking the time.
Continue with the website man, it’s killer. You guys are awesome. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll do the same. Maybe we’ll talk again soon.