“INSANITY IS AN EASY PLACE TO HIDE”: DEVIN TOWNSEND TALKS SPECTACLE, METAL, AND 2012 IN A METALSUCKS EXCLUSIVE
Photos by Brian Schroeter
Sitting opposite Devin Townsend, I am able to witness firsthand his mid-day queasiness (credited to a crummy breakfast), the way conversation causes him to perk up in little plateaus, and his determination while outlining his plans for the coming years. He’s excitedly building something, I observe, with this string of late-year shows in small markets serving as launch ramp to a bigger viability. It’s incredible, but this metal guy — despite boasting an 18-album discography over 16 years, including four Devin Townsend Project records that make up the exquisite Contain Us boxset — is fixed on a greater achievement: more autonomy.
Which is wild if you think about it. Townsend — the sole artist on his own Hevy Devy Records, a eight-tool studio whiz, and a frequent genre-buster now at a peak in popularity — appears to be the most creatively and commercially unbound musician ever in any genre. In his own studio and enlisting his peers, Townsend can make any project fly, be it puppet opera (Ziltoid The Omniscient and its planned sequel) or a prog-metal-Quadrophrenia-on-peyote theatrical epic (this year’s masterful Deconstruction) or sweet Anneke van Giersbergen-voiced pop metal (2009‘s Addicted, the forthcoming Epicloud project).
So what more does he want? The clue lies in DTP’s one-album-per-night shows back in November, and a massive event this Fall called The Retinal Circus: He’s steadily setting foundations for a bigger live show with a bigger budget, in reference to which his term is “absurd” (a word he pronounces “ob-zurd,” though it’s unclear whether that’s a product of Canadianism or just the way “homage” is said by certain people “oh-mazhe” and by others “Ah-mej”). But why, in these uncertain times, is Townsend forsaking modest aims for risk? We might surmise that he’s not satisfied to perform only parts of sprawling epics like Deconstruction and Ziltoid, nor to sub in backing tracks for his orchestras and choirs. To us, he could be metal’s most ambitious madman or a joker set on his own destruction. He probably wants nothing more sinister than to have shitloads of fun.
For the moment it’s a bit vague. What becomes clear over the course of our talk is that he is an entertainer and a liberator, a spirit-guide on a tour through the heart of a metal guy’s frantic consciousness. To this end, he is fortifying his fanbase. Hours after our talk, Townsend will display this onstage, loudly describing his suit’s odor as that “of a thousand ballbags,” bolting stage-right and out around the crowd to rock in the face of a 50-ish spectator seated mid-venue, and segueing regularly into and out of instrumental passages with self-reducing quips (“I’m a fucking dink! Go!”). He’ll dole out mid-show bro-fists, press forehead-to-forehead with front-row fans, and call his song “Life” his “gayest ever.” After the show, as cymbals are still ringing, Townsend will hop right down off the stage to greet and pose with all concertgoers. He’s friendly and sincere to each. He’s got plans for them.
Anso DF: The release of Deconstruction and Ghost closes the door on a big project for you. Each turned up on a bunch of MetalSucks’ year-end lists. Are you gratified that people seem to have grasped these weird albums?
Devin Townsend: I’d like to think that I’m less oblivious that I actually am. But I really feel like I am not aware of how it’s perceived. I think that the best way for me to keep focused on what I’m trying to do musically is to be separated from the criticisms and accolades that it might generate. For me, Deconstruction was a really important record to make just based on the need to close that chapter. Not even to close it, but to address how I felt about these sorts of musics. With Strapping Young Lad, there was really a …
[DTP guitarist Dave Young enters with back to interview and removing a noisy candy wrapper or something. DT and ADF observe, exchange glances.]
[Young continues unwrapping]
DT: There was really a [pauses] heavy [pauses] need for me to, uh … [To Young, gently] Daaave?
Dave Young: [still unwrapping, turns around] Okay, I’m leaving!
DT: [laughs] It’s just the crinkling. Sorry, dude!
[DY exits merrily.]
DT: [laughs] There was a real need to address Strapping in some sense. With the amount of romance that people tend to put on memories of things … I was thinking about it: I moved to L.A. and hated it so vehemently that I kept romanticizing this shitty apartment I’d had back in Vancouver. I was like, ‘It was great! It was the best apartment ever. It was nothing like this.’ Then I made a real effort to move back into the apartment, and when I got back there, I was like, ‘This is nowhere near as nice as I remember it.’
With Strapping Young Lad, it was such a huge part of my life. But the reason I didn’t want to continue doing it was that I felt there was a lot for me to say apart from Strapping that, given another ten years, would be way more visceral and theatrical and emotionally gratifying for me, something I would be able to continue into my adulthood without having to make it any sort of pose for people. When people were asking, ‘Why did you break up Strapping?’, the honest answer was just that I didn’t feel like doing it anymore. But that just didn’t cut it. People were like, ‘No, no, no. We need drama here.’
ADF: See, that explanation does cut it for me. Cuz I saw Strapping a bunch of times; it looked like a load of work, the kind that taxes you physically and emotionally.
DT: It was tons of work [laughs]. The funny thing is that people are always expecting drama. But, Jesus Christ, I talked to Gene yesterday; I went over for lunch with Byron the other week; Jed came to the show. These people are some of my best friends in life, right? A lot of people are looking for it to be something other than that. Because [no drama] was provided, there’s an unrequited need for it. So with Deconstruction, I was consciously trying to make a statement about how I feel about heavy music, saying, ‘Hey, I’m over it’ — not heavy music, but hurting myself for the benefit of other people. [laughs]
ADF: [laughs] Raking yourself over the coals.
DT: A lot of people love that. They love to be a martyr or need martyrs in their lives. So when you choose not to be one for very legitimate reasons, a lot of times the reasons need to be spelled out. So Deconstruction was my way of spelling that out and saying, ‘Look, if I were to make a project now that was based in the same reaction to my environment that made Strapping so awesome — meaning, my headspace — this is what it would sound like.’ It’s stream of consciousness, it’s based on things that need to be complicated in order to make a statement about my feelings about complicated music. Admittedly, it is a very confusing record; it is really dense and not necessarily a very pleasant listening experience, right?
ADF: It’s demanding.
DT: Absolutely. I guess what I was trying to say with the music was, ‘Look, it’s demanding for me to do these sorts of things at this point, so if you wanna do it, I’m going to make something that’s demanding for you.’
ADF: That’s fair.
DT: Yeah, I thought it was fair, too. The reaction from the people who I think understand and support what I do was, ‘That was really cool. You can tell the effort went into it, we can see what you’re trying to put across, and the farts and the cheeseburger and that sort of shit … We get it.’
But from the standard metal community, [the reaction was] ‘It’s sabotage. You’re getting all of our favorite singers in there to make some sort of a sabotage thing.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I wish I was as focussed on you as …’ [laughs]
ADF: As you all are.
DT: ‘… as you are. But I don’t give a fuck what you think about it. I’m doing this to prove a point.’ [laughs] So, regarding the year-end [lists], I haven’t seen it. I don’t really know. But I was very satisfied with [Deconstruction]. There are certain things mix-wise … We mixed it with Jens [Bogren] and I wish I’d had an opportunity to mix it on my own. That’s not to say he didn’t do a fantastic job, because he did.
DT: But I’d had my finger in the pie for everything up to that point, and then we had to go on tour. So I feel like I lost a bit of control over it.
ADF: Whenever I read that a musician had a deadline and had to go out on tour, I wonder what that means. How did the schedule become as such that you couldn’t finish work on Deconstruction?
DT: Well, I managed to finish the work on it. But almost exactly a year ago now, we switched to a manager in London; his name is Andy Farrow and he does Opeth and Katatonia. Before that I was with Mike Mowery at Outer Loop and I love Mike. He’s one of the greatest people in my life. But after ten years, I felt I needed to try a different path — not just with Strapping, but with management and merch. So we moved to Andy, who really understands what I think I want to achieve in the future.
I really want a show. I really want it to be awesome; I want even people who hate the music to want to come because, y’know, it’ll be a spectacle. He said, ‘Okay, in order to do that, you’ve got to play catch-up here.’ Admittedly, a lot of it was my fault. I’d tour and then I’d say, ‘I don’t want to tour anymore. I want to go do this.’ Then the label and management were like, ‘Cool, man. If that’s what you want to do, then that makes sense.’
But Andy is like, ‘If we’re going to achieve this, this is what you’ve gotta do: You’ve gotta tour your balls off, you’ve got to take the Damnation Festival or the Tuska Festival — these shows that we were in a position to headline — and use them as a stepping stone … to these absurd shows you want to do. We can prove to the people that you’re good for this many tickets. Directly after a success like these four shows in London, we’ll do the Roundhouse, which [fits] 4,000 people. With each of these [steps], we can gain the capital to make these absolutely absurd statements live, with choirs and orchestras and huge production.’
My feeling about money has always been that’s it’s such a bitch, right? [laughs] Trying to make ends meet sucks. So in a similar way, what we were trying to do with Deconstruction … if we could make so much money and then blow it? That’d be awesome. It’d be another middle finger.
So Deconstruction and Ghost and people’s perceptions of them … I’m not super-aware of it on one hand because I try not to pay too much attention to the good stuff or the bad stuff; somewhere in the middle is the truth, right? But more so than that, this whole Devin Townsend Project — these four records — is trying to make a statement about a frame of mind that contributed to the end of one creative period in my life and the beginning of another. So none of the four records really defines much to me other than that.
Now that’s they’re done I’m hoping that this new record that we start in January called Epicloud — which has Anneke on it —
DT: Yeah, it’s great! It is a reaction to Deconstruction, about which all the metal elite were like, ‘You’re a jack-ass.’ [laughs] And I’m like, ‘That’s cool man. I get it.’ But if I’m not invited to that party, then I’m going to make a fucking awesome melodic hard rock record that is epic, sounds great, and is easy to listen to. Then after that I’m going to make the next Ziltoid record; that’s going to be a shit-show of such proportions that the only way I can gain the momentum to make that is to first give people something a little easier to listen to. Everything reacts to the thing before.
The Devin Townsend Project was great for me to make an obvious reaction to this switching of gears; but do any of [the DTP records] define what I am or what I choose to do in its entirety? Well no, right? I don’t think anything ever will. But it was really nice to finish it; it’s really nice to have this representation for people who were asking, ‘Why did you stop doing what you did?’ Obviously, it wasn’t easy for me to …
ADF: You had to break up with your friends a bit?
DT: Well, yeah, but that’s the thing: I didn’t. All my buddies are still my buddies. I love Byron, I love Jed, and I love Gene.
ADF: Gene has lost a lot of weight.
DT: It’s fucking awesome!
ADF: He looks great!
DT: Absolutely! A lot of times there’s a [perception] that we broke up and there was all this bullshit. No, no, no. Strapping was awesome! The reason I didn’t want to do it anymore is that … Why would you want me to do something that my heart’s not into if that’s what defined it and made it so good in the first place? I quit doin’ drugs, I quit drinking, I’m 40 years old. A lot of times when people say, ‘Hey man, you need to do Strapping!’ I reply, ‘Well, how old are you?’
DT: ’23? That makes perfect sense because that’s how old I was when it meant everything to me!’
ADF: It’s like, ‘You go do Strapping!’
DT: Yeah! ‘Go for it, dude! I mean, there are tons of bands that are pissed off!’ I got to the point with Strapping that 10% of my emotional capacity was heavily invested in anger, aggression, and the visceral power that comes from the people in Strapping. But to make any band work, you have to tour the shit out of it. By the end of it, I was spending 11 months of the year on 10% of my emotional interest. That’s not enough for me to not just get sick of it. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it; that doesn’t mean the 10% isn’t important to me. But that to exclusion of everything else? I can’t do it. It’s fuckin’ wearing me down.
So I have established something now — we’ve been doing it for two years — and where I choose to take it in the future, what will it include and not include, is a complete open slate. Sometimes people say it’s not as good, and I’m like, ‘I’ve only been doing it for two years, man. I don’t have the momentum or money behind it that will allow me to take it to a level that there’s no way, in my opinion, I could’ve taken it in the past.
ADF: What level? Are we talking about a traveling show? A residence somewhere?
DT: See, I think that’d be great. But I think there’s any option. [pauses] Okay, when I see the stage shows that Ashlee Simpson, Rhianna, or Nickelback … And there are elements of all those bands that I appreciate; I’m definitely not saying it’s shit music. Y’know, different people like different music. But because that type of music has that amount of attention put on it, the bands are able to have these screens and huge, glorious stages. To have that level of production to [be able] to do whatever comes into our heads?
The group of people I have around me, even at this stage, is really creatively interesting. There’s no holds barred, with Ziltoid, with visuals, or with humor; many of them have a university-level degree in music. So if I want to use a choir, a full orchestra, or whatever, we’re establishing a framework for that to happen. At this stage, we’re figuring out gear and tones and back-catalogue; we’re able to represent that with box sets and these little steps we’re taking in terms of shows.
But the goal is to take absurd levels of production and make creatively intense, admittedly absurd statements: ‘Here’s this Ziltoid thing and flying elephants that explode and sharks that drop into the audience and projections; here’s something funny and intense and powerful and overwhelming. [It’s the freedom] to say well fuck all this shit, [our show] doesn’t have to be this Pepsi Generation thing in order to participate in this high level of entertainment. Let’s make something that’s awesome. Will that [come to] include that same visceral nature that Strapping had? Of course! It’s part of me.
ADF: See, tell me if you agree with this: I don’t see a world of difference between [Strapping Young Lad’s] Alien and Deconstruction.
DT: On a sonic level, I agree. Actually Deconstruction offers things that Alien didn’t. For example, Deconstruction was written completely sober; I’ve been sober for years now. so there was a part of me that was challenging my rhythmic and melodic sensibilities. To keep track of ten things going on at the same time — whether or not the effect of that is ultimately a pleasing one — you have to be sober. There’s no way I could do that when I was stoned.
DT: So there’s that. However, Alien offers something that Deconstruction never could: that suicidal need to go where I’ve never gone before. Once I had done that, I realized that like all records I’ve written, the reason I [wrote it] is on some subconscious level to … figure out what would happen if i did X. With Alien, once I did that, I was like ‘Oh that’s what happens.’ I realized that the end result is something I don’t really enjoy, but I’m really stoked that I went there. Because, y’know, lesson learned.
Even at the end of Alien, there’s “Info Dump” where it’s all morse code; the last morse code thing ends with Z-squared. It’s this math equation, stupid nerdy shit. But when I do Z-squared, it’ll kinda tie that together. But there are a lot of folks, the synchronicity freaks that are concerned about everything being this universal, all-roads-lead-to-Rome conspiracy shit … I do it because I think it’s interesting and creatively engaging.
I got no message, man. Other than just ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.’ The worst thing that could happen is, yeah, you can fail. But you might succeed at something, like, ‘Holy shit! I’m really glad I took that opportunity.’
ADF: I’ve done that! It’s fun!
ADF: I’m glad you mentioned your message. I perceive a tiny movement in metal toward an enlightened positivity.
DT: Yeah, I hear you.
ADF: I find Deconstruction and Ghost very positive. I find Addicted very, very positive.
DT: Thank you! Absolutely.
ADF: And that Mastodon record?
DT: The Hunter? It’s awesome.
ADF: Yeah! And they close the album with a song that repeats, ‘Pursue happiness with diligence.’ We, as metal people, are looking up. Is this something that you welcome?
DT: Oh, dude, it’s what I’m all about. 100%.
ADF: The ‘90s woe-is-me, glorious misery thing is —
DT: Fuck it.
DT: I mean, there’s unfortunate, traumatic shit that happens to everybody. But you have a choice to break your own cycle. I mean, the rest of my band drinks and smokes weed. And they’re fine! They don’t have the same interaction with those things that I do. So that’s what they should do. But for me, it didn’t work. And knowing that, I had the choice of either going through the bullshit of changing that or continuing to wallow in that whole woe-is-me shit. This is where the separation comes for me; this why the next record I’m going to do is very … I hate to use the word ‘commercial’ because that implies [movement] in a direction I’ve never gone before. I’ve been doing commercial music since the fuckin’ —
ADF: Since Ocean Machine.
DT: Since Ocean Machine, right? Besides the people who were like, ‘I get Deconstruction. Cool!’, there are also people who [feel] metal shouldn’t be other than this. ‘It shouldn’t be not oppressive. It’s shouldn’t be not dark. As a result of what you’re doing, your not being this way, I don’t think you’re metal anymore.’ If that’s the criteria that I have to follow, I’m totally cool with not being involved with it.
But in my mind, metal is not defined by oppressive, negative bullshit. Metal is defined by a creative freedom and a type of power that’s visceral in a way that no other kind of music is. And if what you’re choosing to represent with that power is negativity, positivity, cathartic release, absurdity, whatever — it doesn’t matter. To me, that’s what metal is. To a lot of people, I’m wrong. I’m cool with that.
ADF: Hmm. Have you heard the logic that anybody who aspires to be a politician or a cop — or to any position of authority — by definition should be disqualified from being one?
DT: [laughs] That’s great.
ADF: If you want to be a cop, that means you’re unfit to be a cop.
DT: I agree with that, actually. [laughs]
ADF: On that same token, if you’re someone who is out to define what artists can or cannot do and to police the boundaries of music … That is whom we all should listen to the least.
ADF: And they happen to speak the loudest.
DT: That’s awesome. I love that. Here’s the thing: A misconception — a small one, but a misconception nonetheless — in some circles about what I do is that I’m trying to be controversial or to push people’s buttons. But I don’t want to offend people; I don’t want people to be upset by what I do.
ADF: It feels horrible.
DT: Well, yeah! That’s why after Deconstruction, I was like, ‘Really? There are certain people that are offended by this? I’m really sorry! That was not my intention.’
DT: My intention was not only to summarize my connection to heavy music, but to make a metaphor about how the quest to figure out [that which is] beyond the human race in this stage in our evolutionary development is absolutely futile, and will lead to one of two things: insanity or embarrassment. I think insanity is an easy place to hide because it’s like a choice for some people. They’re like, ‘Okay, if I continue to do these things that make me unreachable to the people close to me, then I’m safe.’
ADF: Then you’re off the hook.
DT: Totally off the hook. But I think that knowing that, you’re like, ‘I have a choice?’ Then there’s an embarrassment that you have to confront. You have to be like, ‘Look guys, I made a ton of mistakes.’ However, the last song on Deconstruction, “Poltergeist,” is supposed to say is now that once you’ve recognized that mechanism within yourself that allowed you to make mistakes you would love to cover your head and hide from, you have the choice of either forgetting or denying that it was ever part of your existence.
A lot of times, people who have come through Strapping or heavy music, they say, ‘Okay, I’m no longer a heavy metal musician. I’m a jazz musician. I’m not heavy metal anymore.’ I think in a sense that’s irresponsible. What makes you get to the point where you make these decisions has everything to do with your past. To deny that is like neutering your learning process.
So for me, the last song on Deconstruction is like, y’know, now that I’ve found the poltergeist, the ghost of your past, like die die die, right? But at the end of it, it’s like no, what you actually want to do is marry that. That’s why Ghost, the next record, is like, ‘You’ve gotta get married to that. You’ve gotta forgive yourself.’ If you’re an asshole and you’ve made mistakes, you can either say ‘Hey, that wasn’t me!’ or you can say ‘Hey guys, I was a fuckin’ dick.’
ADF: It’s no big deal to do that!
DT: And you end up using so much less of your personal energy trying to defend something that you know in your heart is incorrect.
ADF: You’re blowing my mind right now.
DT: [laughs] But it’s the truth! So now, with Devin Townsend Project or Ziltoid or whatever I do, a lot of people say I should go back to Strapping Young Lad and I say, ‘Look, that element of Strapping Young Lad?’ I mean, I wrote 97% of everything that Strapping ever did!
ADF: Good job, dude!
DT: Well, thank you! Maybe a little less. Jed wrote that riff in “The New Black.” Gene wrote the first riff in “Monument.” My connection to Gene was always awesome. He inspired me, but let’s be real about this: 95% of what Strapping did was written in my bedroom or in the middle of some existential crisis. So to think that by move on past that, that part of me has died is absurd. It’s now being integrated into something — if I get the opportunity, which I’m going to make happen — that includes it. Of course it’s included! That’s an essential element to it!
But there’s a certain amount of legwork that has to go into establishing a group of people where there’s no drama. Touring … I’m not necessarily saying Strapping was like this, because as we said, those guys are some of my best friends ever. But I’ve been in touring situations and seen people in touring situations where a lot of personal energy goes into just keeping everybody’s shit together. If there’s an argument, there can be unresolved shit; as opposed to just being adults and moving past it [in service of] our goal. Not only that’s the goal, but those are the goal posts. Let’s move past shit, let’s make sure that the group of people we’re working with are all focused on the same thing; let’s make sure drugs and alcohol are where the should be in the scheme of this: a recreation for some that’s not an option for others.
From there, if I ever get an opportunity — which this new management is very, very active in making happen — to step-stone each of these things, and by the time we are headlining some massive thing [on the back] of some massive investment to make whatever you want to happen, then we’ll have a team of people from my past and my present that can make shit happen because everybody thinks it’s cool. Rather than what will put our kids through college, or what the company that makes guitars for us wants us to do, or what a company that’s trying to make us into some fucked up-lookin’ pop stars wants us to do. No, this is what we want to do. Strapping is a huge part of that, and so is [DTP] and what happens in the future. In all honesty, man, it’s all based on having a good time, the relationships I have with the people in my life, and not taking it too seriously, to be perfectly honest.
DT: I think that ‘not taking it seriously’ thing pisses some people off. If they’ve got a personal investment in the meaning behind everything … I personally think that chaos is the way to go. It doesn’t mean much of anything, so you might as well be able to control your own mind, right?
ADF: It’s tough. People are trying to make sense of life. When there’s a voice — in a book or on a record or whatever — that make sense to them, then it becomes about more than enjoying art. It becomes part of your soul.
DT: This is why I try to be active on social media and to talk to people after shows as well. I try to diffuse that sense. There’s so many people in the world that everybody’s looking for a martyr or a priest. If you don’t make it very clear that you’re just as fucked as everybody else —
DT: — then you’re going to run into people’s assumptions. For me, music is … I’m okay at it just because I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. So if I wasn’t okay at it, I wouldn’t have a job doing it. I’d be doing whatever I am okay at. [laughs]
ADF: Or I’d be somewhere right now writing about how you suck.
DT: [laughs] Exactly. If anybody has an emotional investment in music, I think it’s very healthy to examine what music means in the first place. I like the whole Carl Jung sense that music, art, literature — anything comes from a pool of collective human experience that certain artists and teachers are privy to in a certain way. Does it mean necessarily that it’s the artist who’s responsible for that shit? In my opinion, no. I think you’re a worker. As a result, if everybody’s involved with it — if you can get a group of like-minded individuals together — then what you can create is so much more than one person could. I’m cool with being the, like, master of ceremonies because I’m a cheese ball and I like to entertain people. But does that mean it’s me or them or the other thing? No. [laughs]