A METALSUCKS EXCLUSIVE: DEVIN TOWNSEND TALKS GAY TELESCOPES, ZILTOID TV, AND TOTAL DECONSTRUCTION
Devin Townsend has so much explaining to do. As a tireless songwriter and producer, he’s set to release two albums on June 21, Ghost and Deconstruction, to complete the Devin Townsend Project cycle that he started with 2009’s Ki and Addicted. That’s four full-length records, 43 songs, and 260 minutes of music unleashed over about two years. But for Townsend, discussion goes beyond song ideas and his exhaustive studio work required to bring them to life; he could talk all day and yet only touch on the subjects of touring, sales, and modern music industry calamity; and, shit, his back catalogue is too huge and varied to even approach in a Q&A of any reasonable length.
You see, being a modern musician and being Devin Townsend are not the same thing. Sure, he grinds out records and then tours like everybody. However, our latest MetalSucks interview with Townsend reveals an artist unbound by the limits of imagination, but pretty aware of averse reactions to his art; his self-expression is total and unapologetic — until fans and media misinterpret him or disapprove of his humor. He’s confident as a person, but shakeable as a virtuosic guitar player, a theater and puppet enthusiast, and a production wiz. He lets no truth about his world go unexpressed, beit via the hair-raising cacophony of Deconstruction (think Strapping Young Lad’s Alien: The Ride) or Ghost‘s murmuring calm. He puts himself out there all the way; now, let him explain why.
I. THE DARKNESS OF DECONSTRUCTION, THE LIGHT OF GHOST, AND THE STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Anso DF: Let’s talk about Deconstruction. It’s this dizzying, manic metal opera. Fans have been hearing about it for a while, at least since Ki and Addicted came out in 2009. You had a plan for the album back then; does the finished album match your vision?
Devin Townsend: Yeah, it did really. To really simplify things, I made these four records because I really like writing music. The person that I am, I find that that’s the way I express myself, right? I’m pretty stunted emotionally in life, so the ability that I’ve kinda worked on over the past however many years to express it through music is really rewarding for me on a personal level. The brass tacks of why I did this is that. It’s what I do and I really enjoy it and it doesn’t go much further than that.
The thing is, though, in the past I’ve found that I’ve been… Some of the music or lyrical [meaning] of what I’ve done have been interpreted in ways that make me, y’know, uncomfortable. I find it important — at least at this stage in my career — to explain why things are the way they are. A lot of that times that comes across in this sort of conceptual way, right? And I want to be clear in the fact that, yeah, there’s a concept to what I do, but no [more] than any other songwriter.
To have other people validate music… It seems to make sense that if they relate to something that happened in the life of whoever wrote it, there’s an element of honesty, right? I guess what I’m trying to say is that the concept behind all this stuff, yeah man, it’s a personal thing. Anytime I explain it and hear it out loud, it’s a pretty bleak concept. It doesn’t seem to really be a literal thing that many folks can get their heads around. I guess the thing with it is [that] Deconstruction served as a part of that concept, if you want to call it that, at the crux of this whole thing.
When I quit Strapping Young Lad years ago, I quit it because I felt like it had reached its shelf-life. For me, creatively, I felt like it was on the verge of imposing boundaries that were just going to make me very unsatisfied as a person. I love the band, everything about it. Like, my friends are in the band, I love playing with those guys, and we had some great… But I just didn’t want to do it anymore. That’s really what it came down to. It’s the same reason that I quit smoking weed; I got no moral judgement against weed or anything. It just ceased to work for me. So I moved on. And that explanation didn’t seem to really cut it for most people. And I’m like, “Hey man. I don’t feel like doing it right now.”
You’re talking about fans?
Yeah, media or fans, or people who had an emotional investment in Strapping. So, Deconstruction allows me to say, “Look, if I’m to do heavy music now, this is how it interests me.” I’m not saying it’s the best metal record or that it’s an important statement in the slightest. I’m saying that in order for me to provide closure for myself and my involvement with that sort of thing in the past, this is how it interests me at this point. It’s not linear; it’s kind of stream of consciousness and complicated. However, the whole record was rooted in me having control over that in a way that I never had before on a personal level. In that sense, for me, it needed to be this kinda bizarre thing so I could explore how far I could take these certain creative ideas without letting it get the best of me. In my opinion, that’s what I did. So I’m really happy with it.
Did all these songs just fly out of you? And was it a massive undertaking to then go into the studio and capture all these ideas? There is just so much shit going on!
I think that the process that I’ve been working on — and I use the word “process” loosely …
My own personal process has been over the past twenty years about capturing things as they come, in a sort of improvisational sense, right? How that goes down is to keep it simple. I don’t have a lot of plug-ins; I don’t have a lot of gear or fourteen guitars to choose from. I’ve got, y’know, what works. When I need a delay, I bring up my delay. When I need a bass sound, I’ve got like two options. That way, as the ideas come I can document them, and represent how they should come across emotionally according to how feel at the time that I’m writing it, without having to go back to it later and be like, “What the hell was I trying to do there?”
So it’s about documentation.
Yeah. That stream-of-consciousness thing — whether or not it works in terms of becoming a standard for albums or fitting in the metal scene — I find really interesting. Deconstruction is not meant to be anything but deconstruction. From a lyrical point of view, it relates to certain things in my own frame of reference — maybe Strapping, or my connection to heavy music, or confronting certain things in my self — that’s all there, for sure. I suggest that anybody who writes songs [have] these motivations. Ultimately the point of the record is that if you analyze too far, it comes across as absurd. If you focus on all these motivations, it becomes this journey up your own ass.
[laughs] Really, I like stream-of-consciousness stuff, complicated statements, music that has the heavy aesthetic. But at this age, I’m hoping that making this record will underline that the reason I don’t do Strapping is not to insult the people who enjoyed it, it’s because it’s not what I am anymore. “If I was to make a heavy record now, this is what I am currently. If you don’t like it, there you go.” [laughs] I’m definitely not trying to shove it down people’s throats. But I really wanted to make it, and so I did; the option was, like, to not release it. So here it is.
I’m interested in the really awesome guest turns on Deconstruction, like Greg Puciato (Dillinger Escape Plan) and Joe Duplantier (Gojira). Does that happen when you want someone awesome to sing a part you’ve written, or do those guys come in and write for your record?
One of my goals now that I’ve purged this, this complete mess [laughs] is to be in a collaborative thing. Really, dude, I want to play bass for somebody. [laughs] Really. Not heavy stuff, either. I love playing bass. If I had a choice to do something in the future, I’d love to be a sideman.
I like that role. I like that sense of support. But this particular project was established three or so years ago, when I was finding myself in the situations that led to this kind of creative output. When I wrote the stuff, each record is supposed to be unto itself — a good Addicted record, a good Deconstruction record. What that entails is different for each. For Deconstruction, when I tried to reconnect with heavy music, my intentions through whatever it was, age or family or circumstances, have changed. It ended up that I still love heavy-sounding guitars, rapid drums, complicated note choices, and things that are crow-barred together to work harmonically that maybe aren’t supposed to. I like that.
As opposed to when I was 25 or 26, when [my music] was more based on the brutality that I was highly invested in — as I imagine most metal dudes are at that age — now I find that the best way to approach it was with more theatrically. When I was a teenager, I really liked theater. I liked new age-y things. Part of being honest with myself was putting that out and saying, ‘It might not be cool. It might not get heard. But I like it.’
When I started writing it, part of the theatrical element was [using] different vocal textures. At first I did them myself, but I have shitty death metal vocals, man. I sound like Super-Grover. Know what I mean?
[laughs] So, who in my social network — friends I’ve known for a while, people I’ve toured with who aren’t assholes …
Who do I know that I could ask to [contribute vocals]? From an objective point of view, yeah, those are some really cool names from cool bands. But really, man, most of these folks are people I’ve known for a long time. We’re all about the same age and have toured together. For someone who’s seventeen, it may not be an overwhelming cast of characters. They’re people I really get along with.
I was thinking: The problem is that it may come across as, “Hey, we know you don’t like this guy, but someone you do like sings on the record. Maybe that will convince you to spend $15 on this shitty record.” [laughs]
Oh, the Santana way.
Yeah. I asked the label, “Let’s just not make a big deal out of it, right?” They asked if they could tell people who’s on it. I was like, “Sure, but let’s not put a big green sticker on the album that reads featuring so-and-so from a band you like better than this.” To get back into doing this record, I had to provide a sense of closure to why I’ve done what I’ve done in the past, and why I will do what I do in the future. It was an endorsement for me to have people from great bands add a texture here and there. Really that’s all it is. If it’s focussed on and if you started trumpeting the names, I think people will be overwhelmingly disappointed with the contributions, because they’re small.
Well, I’d say small yet hugely impactful. But I agree that foreknowledge is an issue for listeners. The first time we listen, we’ve already read the song title and the guest performer’s name next to it. The song and the guest get equal billing. So as we listen, we kinda anticipate the guest’s work and it turns into a distraction.
Wait, where does that come up. On iTunes?
On my personal music device.
I certainly didn’t want that to be the case. I think that’s super-cheesy. I hope that doesn’t come up on the record, ’cause it’s not what I wanted.
Maybe it’s just this promo I was sent? [Actually, Axl re-labeled the songs on the promo before he sent it off to Anso, because Axl was personally having a hard time remembering who guested on each track. Axl is now sorry he ever did that. -Ed.]
Here’s the thing, man: I was thinking before we talked today about MetalSucks and my dubious connection to the heavy scene. Really, what defines this project more than anything else is the mistakes. There are a ton of mistakes. Musically, production-wise, mix-wise… I’m sure marketing-wise, as well. Everything, man. It’s such a big undertaking that there’s no way it’s gonna be perfect.
But perfectionism is almost a liability in a way? If you’re so concerned about things being right, it gets difficult to be free with it. I guess that’s the compromise to be made there; yeah, there’s a lot of fuck-ups, man. When I talk about confronting elements of my own musical sphere that have caused me problems in the past, perhaps that perfectionism is to have the mistakes plainly in the scope of how people perceive a thing and will ultimately benefit me personally. Whether it’s a benefit to project remains to be seen [laughs].
For me, it’s like, “Fuck it. I can’t control it.” You can only do your best, right? Fear of failure and fear of success are ultimately going to lead you to doing nothing. Or to making music that’s neutered. [laughs] At least I can safely say that, if nothing else, I can provide a [laughs] service for the listener with something that’s honest. If it’s good or bad, that’s up to them to decide. But it’s coming from a place that I can get behind.
You mention mix and production mistakes on Deconstruction. Are these something a listener will pick up? I detect no mistakes.
If you’re a perfectionist, I would assume that everything can be done better. A lot of the time, that’s the tendency. Because it’s so subjective, you end up swimming in this endless spiral in an attempt to appease your perfectionism. It’s an illusion. You could look at something as having no problems, or everything is a problem.
It’s done to the best of my ability. It sounds and feels like what I wanted it to sound and feel like.
Okay, there we go.
From there, anything I have problems with — or anything other people have problems with — I just have to let it go. I release all this stuff in the headspace that I’m satisfied with it. Is it perfect? Hell no. [laughs] Of course not. But am I satisfied with it? Yeah, it says what I want it to say.
You said earlier that you like theater. I noticed the theatricality of Deconstruction right away; the first song “Praise The Lowered” starts out quiet and spooky, then in a flash, it turns loud and scary.
As much as I think the concept is not super-important, there’s a progression musically that I see happening a certain way in my mind’s eye. The theatrical elements of it I’ve tried to make so, in my mind’s eye, if you will — or in some fictional world where I’m not just trying to pay my rent but somebody’s giving me a million dollars to make some absurd [record] — it would play out a certain way.
Judas Priest, Metallica, Grim Reaper, Venom, and all the bands that really affected me as a teen really played into my musical development. But a lot of this Devin Townsend Project thing has come full circle for me to recognize that before that [I was influenced by] Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Star Wars soundtrack, and the movie The Dark Crystal; before that it was new age meditational music that I used to hear at this bookstore when I was a kid.
Somewhere along the line, because I loved heavy metal so much and it really [fit] my frame of mind from my late teens to my early 30s, I had kinda lost track of some of my earlier influences. From my perspective, some of that stuff isn’t really that cool. It’s hard to hang out on a tour bus and say, [fiendishly] “Hey man didja hear that new Andrew Lloyd Webber jam. It’s sssick.” [laughs]
[laughs] I think there’s a part of me that’s always been insecure about my connection to things that are a little left of center. Through the criticisms and the lack of perfection, you get to the point where you’re like, “Okay, well you’re not going to please… if not everybody, you’re not going to please anybody.” So you might as well do something that you feel like doing. The theatrical thing, I was just like, “If I’m going to do this, I might as well just do it. If it works, it’ll work well; if it fails, man, it’s going to be such an epic failure that we’ll get some humor out of it.” Right?
Right. You’re the album’s MVP, but my sixth man award goes to Tommy Rogers (Between The Buried And Me). His performances on “Planet Of The Apes” are so awesome. But his are some of the album’s only lovely moments; a lot of Deconstruction is really dark and a little nightmarish. The first night that I listened to the album, by the end of “The Mighty Masturbator,” I was freaked-out. Were you trying to communicate a darkness?
No. Dark music is the crux of this, uh, internal dialogue that I’ve had for years from wondering if my nature — dark music — is just like fucked. [laughs] Then I started thinking, “What would really compound what I’m trying to get across with Ghost? To make Deconstruction what it wants to be.” Let’s talk about the Star Wars soundtrack again: As obvious as a [contrast between] light and darkness as that music is, it still makes sense. The themes that John Williams did for Darth Vader — it’s dark music; the light stuff is light. And I think that to not commit to either of those doesn’t make sense; you’re going to get this wishy-washiness to what you’re trying to put across.
That being said, yeah, Deconstruction is dark, but I spent so much time on the lyrics to make sure that every lyric [was something which] I felt I could back and be accountable for. In the past… Again, I got no moral judgement on drugs at all. I don’t give a shit; it just doesn’t work for me anymore. I would argue that it never worked for me. And when I was stoned all the time, I found it a lot easier to disregard how people would perceive my stream-of-consciousness shit. If that stream of consciousness isn’t under my control, then ultimately I find myself having to rationalize or justify things during the five interviews a day that I’ve done for the past twenty years. And I don’t have any answers! Someone would ask, “Well what did you mean by this?” I was like, “I don’t know, actually. That is kinda fucked. You’re right.”
At least with Deconstruction, there’s no [pauses] hidden agenda. It is what it is, and I can back what I’m saying. The element of darkness to it is not something that’s beyond my control or something that I’m unfamiliar with; I’m comfortable with it. Getting in touch with that darkness and recognizing what causes it, and how I feel about it, is very important for me to move on. If I analyze it like I just did, it makes it seem like I’m trying to make some therapeutical self-help series here. Which is not the case, man. I just wanted to make a metal record, and this is how metal sounds to me at this point in my life. But, yeah, further into it, it’s dark because there’s an element of me that’s dark. But Ghost is committed to being not dark.
I have a million questions about Ghost, too. It’s a super-quiet album with absolutely no edge. Was there any temptation to toughen it up or were you cool with making an album that’s totally serene?
Here’s the thing. I am talking about the [pauses] internal workings of
Deconstruction. Even in the name implies taking apart something; what I was taking apart was the process. Whether or not that’s engaging for others, again, is up to them. What I’ve found is that through my years of feeling the certain way that I did about myself, or my environment, or things that I thought I could change, I found that being vulnerable was a real fear. By vulnerable, it may mean “Hey, I fear things” or “Hey, I’ve always liked New Age stuff and I’ve got no real desire to have edge in my life.” After the purge that was Deconstruction, it was incredibly liberating for me not to have to impose any of that on people. Yeah, I’ve got a darkness in me, but darkness is not my defining characteristic. It’s when I choose to use it and for what reason. [pauses] Yeah, Ghost is on mute. [laughs]
This is obvious, but I say it takes a lot of balls to make either of these albums. Each travels to an extreme and stays there. And because they’re to be released simultaneously, a fan really has to sorta go around the world with Devin Townsend across these two diametrically-opposed albums.
I appreciate that, but again, it’s just creativity. I don’t think I’m either of those things. My desire and ability to do it allows me to get it out there and find a place for some of those emotions. Somebody said to me… Well, people repeatedly say to me that because these two records are so opposed, it suggests some sort of schizophrenia. I think that’s really confusing. I find it hard to believe that other people don’t share those extremes.
When I’m in a bad mood, I’m in a bad mood. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something genetically or emotionally wrong with me. Shit, I get stuck in traffic [so] I get in a bad mood. It’s a human thing. However, there are moments when I don’t want to hear [heavy] sounds. It’s not that I’m opposed to them, it’s because it doesn’t reflect my current frame of mind. During those times, when I pick up a guitar [Ghost] is what comes out of me.
I was [asked in] an interview this morning, “What sort of frame of mind would it take to do both albums?” I’m saying, what frame of mind would it take to not? What is the impetus to not actualize whatever it is that you’re feeling? You don’t want to be seen as this or that; but I’ve never really been [pauses] cool. [laughs] You know?
[laughs] Yeah. Few are.
My desire to, like, try to convince people that I’m not just a funny-looking bald guy trying to figure out what the hell is going on in his life is over. Sorry, man. I wish I could stand on a pedestal and say, ‘Hey, I’m awesome.’ But I’m trying to figure out shit just like everybody else. So perhaps there’s a real benefit to never being part of a clique, right? I’m like, ‘Well fuck it, if i’m not invited to that party, I have nothing to lose by saying this.’*
II. THE BUSINESS OF DEVIN TOWNSEND AND AN ARTIST-FAN CATCH-22
Anso DF: A lot of longtime Devin Townsend fans that I know have asked me about the business side of your career. Can you give us a picture of how things have changed since the Ocean Machine and Infinity days? Is more or less of your time devoted to conducting business?
Devin Townsend: I just switched managers. I had a manager for ten years, an awesome guy. I loved him; he did a great job for me. However, as with Strapping and a lot of things in my life, it was time for a change. I’m now with this guy Andy Farrow at Northern Music. He does Opeth and Katatonia.
It’s a different mindset, one much more based on streamlining all these things that I’ve done. In my mind, I’m such an erratic musician. I’m like, “I feel creative so I’m going to do this and here it is. Next!” [laughs] Now I have people going, “No-no-no. Let’s rein that in a bit. You can do this, but give it to us first; we’ll put it out when it’s not going to fuck this all up.”
But that being said, man, I’ve got so much going all the time. I’ve got so much music. I’ve got albums recorded. The creative and performance elements are 20% of the job. The idea of making music for a living is — in the most secular sense — an absolute blessing to do this for a living. It’s awesome. To play music, and sing, and get to play guitar is awesome. However!
That’s 20% of my job. The other 80% is circumnavigating shit, stuff that defines whether or not you’ll be able to do this for a living. How do you deal with money? Managers? Lawyers? How do you deal with criticism? Accolades? Failure? How do you deal with being a public persona? How do you deal with impositions on your private life? How do you deal with the internet??
All this stuff is what it takes to do this. I’ve been doing it for twenty years, man. If life were like it was in, I’m hypothesizing, the early ‘80s or ‘70s, you could be a bass player in a band and that was what you did for a living. You played bass every now and then, you smoke some doobies, you drink some beer and fall asleep. Fuckin’ right! Know what I mean?
People are always asking, “Well, what do you think of downloading?” You’ve got people who listen to the music, and there’s such a focus in the public on what we do as musicians. It’s how you navigate that that’s going to define whether or not people are going to support you by one means or another — whether it’s buying a stupid record or going to a show — to allow you to continue doing it. I think that’s what it comes down to.
The times that I have stepped away, or have considered stepping away from music, have little to do with playing or writing. It’s more to do with, “Man, this is fucked!” [laughs] I know who I am. I know my faults and attributes. In order to sell it in this day and age, as opposed to Ocean Machine, you have to put yourself out as a persona. That persona requires, in my opinion, a lot of effort to not let people just tear apart. A lot of times if you get a good review, your tendency is just to read it like, “Oh man, check it out. My shit doesn’t stink. Awesome!”
But if you read those reviews, you also have to read the ones that say, “This guy is an asshole. I hate this fuckin’ music. He has no talent.” In the same way that I think that Deconstruction and Ghost don’t epitomize me, I also don’t think that either the most positive or negative reviews play too much of a role in why I continue to do it.
Twenty years ago, maybe there was less of a focus on how you navigate your own career. It may have been more likely then that you could get away with being a prima donna. But now, you are responsible for your own career. If you’re playing a role, making it difficult … I mean shit these things happen and as soon as they happen, they’re on the internet 20 minutes later. It’s how you deal with those failings that allows you to continue. Any band is going to have fans and detractors. The detractors are waiting for those failures that back up their idea that you’re full of shit. Those are the moments where you’re like, “Should I keep doing this or am I truly full of shit?”
See, but I’m like that with Dave Mustaine. I’m a total jerk about him. No remorse.
[laughs] Okay here’s another element of it. As much as I’m playing on that that’s-what-a-musician-must-do thing, I chose to be a musician. Elements of it have happened sorta alongside my choice, and I find myself in unexpected positions. But really, anywhere along the line, I could’ve gotten a job at, y’know, the mill. This job is about knowing how to handle the shit, and [then] handling it. If you put your face out there and say, “Look, here’s a bunch of music with a bunch of bullshit that comes along with it. And here’s a bunch of bizarro concepts,” it’s creative freedom on one level. But it doesn’t make sense to cry foul when people say they don’t like you. Like, “Hit me. Hit me. Hit me! Ouch, why did you hit me?”
[laughs] To not think that it’s going to happen is naive.
You spoke earlier about leaving Strapping Young Lad in your past and about a change in management. What about your early solo albums? Are they still real to you? When you listen to them, is their author familiar to you?
I never listen to my stuff really. The type of music that I listen to has very little to do with what I do. The music that I write is more of a [pauses] byproduct of certain things in my life. I would suggest that any songwriter is of emotional significance to the listener because they’re reflecting on things that have happened to them. I don’t think that you can do that without a healthy sense of self to begin with. But once I’m finished with a record, it’s like, okay there’s that. I listen to it until I can wrap my head around it. For example, I’m still occasionally listening to Deconstruction and Ghost. I don’t listen to Ki or Addicted anymore. I haven’t listened to Ocean Machine in ten years.
But I still do.
See, I appreciate that!
And hey, I’ve changed! The first Strapping came out when I was a freshman in college, dude. I am a completely different person now. But when I listen to that album and I remember me back then.
Same! When I listen to Second Nature by Young Gods or Formula by Old Lady Drivers and Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addictio … Those very much encapsulate a period in my life that I romanticize; they were the soundtrack to that. That’s awesome. This is the Catch-22 of being a musician whose music appeals to certain people on an emotion level: You can be true to your own life, respond to it musically — damn the torpedoes — and know that there’s a lot of people emotionally connected to a period of your life who are not going to like that.
You have the choice to either do that, or to analyze elements of the important period in your life and making a career of replicating that. I made that choice. It sucks for some people. It sucks for former bandmates. It sucks for people that loved certain periods of [my career]. I appreciate that. But what I’m “selling” — if you wanna look at it that way — is honesty, alright? Maybe I’m honestly an asshole.
Here it is. [laughs] It’s for sale!
To some extent, listeners get pulled along with you from album to album. We learn stuff. You say it’s not self-help music, but it sorta is.
That’s not the intention. I appreciate that, man. It’s a nice sentiment. When people have problems with those elements of what I do, perhaps they feel like it’s self-importance on my part? I’m just guessing here. Like, “Hey, I’ve changed. So you should, too.”
But it’s more like, “I’ve changed. While I was changing, these are the riffs that came out of me.” Emotionally, I am as retarded now as I have been since I was fifteen years old.
No, I’ve got a real problem. Some folks in my family died recently and I couldn’t connect to it. There’s been a wall for so many years… You could say it’s a defense mechanism or whatever John Q. Freud-pants would call it. It’s there. The one way that I’ve found that I can get these things out of my system is the one sort of artistic expression that comes naturally to me. I can’t paint, I don’t really draw. I draw dumb cartoons. But I can play guitar. That’s how it comes out.
I’ve tried unsuccessfully to write music that would appeal to people who want a certain thing from me; it always comes across as this crass, very transparent attempt to make money. If I was putting in the hours making music that doesn’t mean anything to me, really, I might as well stay home. I might as well get a job. I could work at a studio or make furniture or something. So, my reason for continuing this is not altruism; I’m not trying to make a point. I do it because it comes naturally and I really like doing it. A lot of the work goes into rationalizing [to those] who don’t relate or who think I’m doing it expressly to piss them off. That’s not the case. I’m doing it because it’s liberating to be able to exorcize these ideas, beit stupid puppets or whatever.
I’m glad you said that. A lot of people on the internet react like every musician on Earth is always working to seek them out and piss them off.
Dude, I totally hear that. As you well know, it’s omnipresent in our jobs. That’s the reaction in some cases. However, in their defense, if you have an emotional investment in something, it’s difficult not to get pissed off when it stops resonating with you. Specifically if you have a dependency on it to provide you with a soundtrack; music is really important, right? My relationship to music is personal. The records that have changed me profoundly through my life that I go back to — it’s me and that record. It’s not my participation in a group thing; it’s me with my headphones in the dark, listening to something that speaks to me. So, I can understand how people get personally offended when the music changes. But, again, our Catch-22: What are ya gonna do? It’s inevitable. I remember, for example, that Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction changed my life, man. I loved it. Just changed my world.
And Ritual [de lo Habitual, Jane’s Addiction’s second album] changed my world. Then when I heard Porno For Pyros [singer Perry Farrell’s post-Jane’s Addiction project], I was like, “What the fuck?!” It, like, pissed me off. The thing that I relied upon to provide me that element of my sonic world is now this other thing which I don’t relate to. Then, in hearing Porno For Pyros, I recognize that those elements were always present in Jane’s Addiction, so all of the sudden I don’t like Jane’s Addiction anymore. [laughs]
So, I get it. I do get it. [laughs] But them’s the breaks. When I was seventeen years old, I used to wait outside tour buses and try to talk to these [musicians]. I know now that there are times on tour when I don’t want to talk to anybody. I’m in a shitty mood or feeling super-insecure. But I’ll go outside and there’s somebody who’s been listening to the record all super-stoked, and I’m a dick to them. I’m like, “Fuck, I don’t want to talk to you right now. You have sweaty hands, you’re giving me the heebie-jeebies. I’m outta here.”
The next thing you know, you’ve fucked this dude over just by feeling the way you feel at the time. It happened to me, too; I remember this artist was a total cock to me. It’s not that he was a cock, he was just not in the mood for it. Anything could’ve happened; he could’ve had a fight with his wife or whatever. As far as I was concerned, from then on whenever he came up in conversation, I was like, [blankly] “That guy’s a dick.” [laughs]
It’s a Catch-22. Nothing’s perfect, right? The artist’s responsibility and the audience’s responsibility is ultimately to be true to yourself. If that means you’re pissed off at somebody for changing, then there it is; you’re pissed off. If that means that the artist doesn’t want to play [certain material anymore], there it is; he doesn’t want to play it. You’ve got two choices: You can sulk about it or you can move on. Moving on, in a lot of cases, [leads to] people — people who like what you or me or anyone has done in the past — saying, “Yeah, I don’t like this guy anymore.” I think that’s as far as it should go; to spend anymore time harping on it is a waste of your energy.
III. ZILTOID TV AND THE DEVIN-ANSO ‘AMERICAN IDOL’ DUET
Anso DF: Are you in the mood for a silly question?
Devin Townsend: Fuck yeah.
Did you see that Judas Priest just performed on stupid American Idol?
Oh yes. Oh yes.
Great. I ask you to imagine that I were a similarly popular contestant on Idol and I wanted you to appear on the show for a jam with me. Would you do it?
So if I were Judas Priest and you were the kid?
That depends. Judas Priest are about to do their last tour, they’re sixty… I can’t imagine the paycheck was small. I saw Rob Halford [on the Idol stage] — very infrequently does he look up. [laughs] Know what I mean? They’re aware. They’re like, “We’re Judas Priest, we’re on American Idol, we got one more tour and we’re retiring. So, hey guys!” At that point, it’s a [matter] of your legacy. There’s always different perspectives: On one level, you had that Christian country guy win but you have Judas Priest on there. That’s cool in its own way if you’re not Christian, right? I say “cool,” again… I have zero religious affiliations in any sense, but it provides at least some texture.
The one thing I did think watching it? K.K. Downing was my hero when I was a kid. If I had one guitar hero, it would’ve been K.K. Downing. So when he left the band, I was like “Fuck, man.” But the new guy did a new job, man. He looked like a young K.K. Downing. He was wicked.
He nailed it.
Yeah, he did, man. But would I sing on American Idol? [laughs] Holy fuck, dude, don’t put me in that scenario. I’m here trying to pay my bills, and then somebody says, “Here’s a million dollars to sing a song. [laughs] I’ll just fuck you in the ass for the next ten days.”
So it depends?
Yeah, it depends. [laughs] I think there are ways to spin it to make Judas Priest the good guys. But ultimately, Judas Priest preyed on American Idol, so …
Say, what’s the status of Ziltoid The Omniscient II?
I’m very rapidly realizing that humor and metal… it doesn’t really work. For the audience. The response I’m getting overwhelmingly is people thinking that I go out of my way to sabotage things.
I can claim it’s irony or metaphor. I can claim it’s anything — but from what I can tell, the establishment of heavy metal doesn’t appreciate that element. I may be off-base here.
What do you mean?
Well, dude, I mean Deconstruction is supposed to be a purge, right? So I put fart samples all over it and I’ve gotten endless shit for that. It’s like, “You ruined the record with that.” I’m like, “What are you talking about? The guy’s purging himself! He’s taking a shit. Fart jokes are funny! What?” It kinda bummed me out ’cause I had all these people saying it’s juvenile humor. Like, “After all we’ve been waiting for, you ruin the album with farting?” I shouldn’t be paying attention, but it was an onslaught.
I spent a couple days thinking maybe I shouldn’t have done it, but then I went for a drive the other day? I put on Deconstruction and after “Pandemic,” [the farts] were just ripping. I was totally in the farting frame of mind. Dude, I laughed for three minutes. [laughs]
[laughs] So with Ziltoid, my whole thing is that I really like having a good time. I like humor. They say humor is the last refuge of the damned. I like laughing. I’m not putting fart samples on my records to piss people off; truly, I am not trying to sabotage anything or offend anybody.
But if I were to do another Ziltoid record now, it would have another metaphor that would [require] me explaining it more than I’m comfortable with. So what I think I’m going to do is a TV show, ZTV. I’m going to make an awesome puppet and I’m going to interview bands. It’ll be a little talk show and funny as fuck. I’m going to use the most base humor and… put a ton of crazy music over top of it that I would probably just use for the next Zioltoid record. And try to stretch into something that ultimately [indicates] that I just want to play with puppets. It’ll be a free thing online. I have a bunch of friends in bands; when they come to town, maybe I can do a stupid interview with puppets. There you go.
You could interview us. That’d turn the tables.
I’d love to, man. That’d be awesome! A lot of times, I find that people are so not into those concepts. I’m a pretty insecure cat, right? So my first reaction is, “Ah, maybe it is kinda stupid.” But I’m also arrogant enough to think that all it takes is listening to it in a different frame of mind: “Uh actually, it’s great. I love that.” I don’t want to shove another Ziltoid record down people’s throats. I want to make something really creatively entertaining and funny, put it online — if you want it, there it is.
The next thing I’ll do musically? Who knows, man. I have a bunch of ideas. I’m going to tour now, and whatever the next thing wants to be, it’ll rear its head.
I’m pumped for the ZTV idea.
Totally dude. We reserved the Ziltoid.tv domain, so at this point, I’m just trying to convince people who do animation and video editing that it’s worth their while to do it for free. [laughs] It’s really hard to get funding for it. I’m like, “No, dude, just wait — it’s a really big puppet, there’s nerdy prog-metal playing in the background, and a lot of fart jokes. Can I have a bunch of money?” People reply, “Yeahhhhh? Nooooo.” [laughs] So I’m trying to find ways to crowbar it together. It’ll happen.
We’ll make it a contest on MetalSucks. “Win the right to work unpaid for Devin Townsend!”
Ohhhh. [laughs] Honestly man, I have a hard time, like, asking people for money or taking donations. Then there’s a certain sense that I owe people. I don’t want to owe people not because I’m uptight about being responsible for shit. But it puts an element of expectation on it that makes it hard for me to do really stupid things. Then people are like, “See, I told you — he’s an idiot.”
“Yeah, but isn’t it kind of funny?” Like, I did this thing called “Telescopes Are Gay” a little while back. It’s pictures of telescopes and this dumb song… Anyway, I doubt I’ll stop. I’m so honored to have support from people who’ve been paying attention for so many years. You guys have been great and continue to be.
I think that different opinions are good. People having strong opinions of what I do, positive or negative, is healthy. In order for things to move forward musically for everybody, it’s good to like and dislike. In the scheme of things in music, what I do is just a contribution. It has nothing to do with being the best or worst; it’s just my shit. [laughs] Throw it on the pile.
It’s been a while, right? Ocean Machine, Infinity, Physicist, the first couple Strapping records — that right there is a full career. But that was just the beginning for you. Your catalogue is fucking huge now.
Know what’s funny? Someone sent me a link this morning to a bunch of my songs that I haven’t heard for years all kinda linked together. Some of the production is pretty dubious, right? But the ideas overall are consistent with what we’ve been saying about Deconstruction and Ghost: It’s not perfect, but it said what I needed it to say at the time.
Well, that’s why it’s shocking to hear that you care what people are saying, to hear you call yourself an insecure person. Let’s not fuck around: Some of the best records of the last decades are Devin Townsend records. How can you not be confident?
I can definitely lie and say, [cooly] “Oh yeah, man. I’m, like, super-confident.” In terms of music, I don’t give a shit. Honestly. That’s what you’re picking up, that I don’t care. I’ll second-guess, but that lasts for a day at most. I do not care; I’m going to do what I’m going to do. I don’t give a fuck.
But as a person? Come on, dude. Point me to someone who’s totally secure. [pauses] Like, Tony Robbins? I don’t wanna hang out with Tony Robbins. You can’t tell me that the dude’s not insecure about his teeth.
[laughs] Really, dude. You’ve got to be honest. I’m not insecure about saying what I want to say. I think I’ve got some bravery that allows me to do things that I shouldn’t have done. That’s not the question. I’m talking about being confident as a person. Music is a separate thing.
Devin Townsend completes his awesome four-album cycle on June 21 with Deconstruction and Ghost via Hevy Devy Records and Inside Out Music. Pre-order your t-shirt/2CD bundles here.