Just As He Is: Devin Townsend

One of the rare geniuses of metal, Metal as Fuck talks with the inimitable, indomitable and incredible Devin Townsend.

On the fringes of music, it can be said only the genius dwells there. The music industry is like a huddling together of its clones of clones with no original that produce their wares for the right price. Selling the most amounts of units gets one’s name called out in lavish and meaningless self-congratulatory spectacles bought and paid for by record companies that are constantly on the look out for the next big money maker, not the most creative individuals that could theoretically change the way people think about and hear music.

Devin Townsend, a rather eccentric, nerdy looking Canadian that wore a trademark “skullet” (having long hair despite balding on the top) is one of those brash individuals that hit the ground running once a guitar was put in his hand or a microphone in front of his incredible voice. His former mentor and master guitarist Steve Vai “can [count] on one crippled hand on people I think that are truly genius in this business and I can genuinely count Devin Townsend as one of them” and described him as an “inspired musician.”

With accolades, endorsements and praise from critics, fans and executives alike, Mr. Devin Townsend is a rare and precious element in such a gargantuan metal scene. His output is as prolific as it is extensive – and now on the verge of a landmark Australian tour with his new Devin Townsend Project, he took time out of his intensely busy schedule to have a talk to us – well, maybe not so busy.

“Sorry I’m late, I was in the middle of mixing a new record of mine and totally lost track of time, man.” Devin says apologetically. “I have a one-track mind, man. I was editing a kick-drum and Star Wars was on the TV…if you put me in front of one thing, I’m good to go.”

Devin is definitely firing on all cylinders and palpably excited to return to Australia, “pretty much [his] favorite place in the world” and is definitely “ready” to take his unique Project down under.

“I can’t even begin to express how excited I am. Not only for the opportunity to play in Australia again but I just finished this tour [with Cynic and Between the Buried and Me], which was the first time performing my solo material and I realized it was a combination of what I did with Strapping Young Lad and what I did with all the solo stuff. Its like the full circle that I’ve come in as an artist, has really allowed me to say ‘lets do this.’

“We were rehearsing almost two and a half hours of material, ya know, and between the real visceral heavy stuff that will take people by surprise from like Physicist and Ziltoid and Deconstruction that we’ll be playing in Australia mixed with acoustic stuff from Ki and the huge epic stuff from Ocean Machine, the big long songs from Terria.  We’re rehearsing it as close to the record and as sick sounding as possible.”

The decision to take his Project on the road was fraught with personal anguish and torment – ever since Devin cleaned up his act by quitting drugs and alcohol, he was unsure of how he would project himself on stage – but he settled into his old self quickly enough.

“Well it was great [being on stage] because again, when I got out there again I thought to myself; ‘Man, who am I without drugs and alcohol?’ Am I going to be like some sort of shoe-gazing pussy? Just get out there and play and say ‘thank you very much’ and be afraid of the audience? I was kind of fighting against that persona I had with Strapping Young Lad; the real ‘entertainer’ the real visceral kind of character.

“Now, after I did that Between the Buried and Me tour, after the third show I thought ‘Shit, am I not only the same performer, but I’m in better shape, my voice sounds better and I love this stuff; I love it.’ It was a real affirmation for me. That’s just who I am. That’s the character; that’s what I do, man. I’m an entertainer, I’m a loudmouth asshole! However, to do that in a situation where I’m playing the music that’s meant so much to me for so long? It’s a dream come true.”

Some have decried Devin’s new material as too “mellow” and an attempt to bury his Strapping Young Lad era in the past – something that’s completely untrue.

“Of course, Strapping Young Lad was one of my favorite metal bands ever, right? However, what I love so much about my solo material is the big choruses, the big epic qualities to them, and the huge choirs. To be able to do that properly, after years of using keyboard players where I finally decided just to re-do all the samples and do it all, you know, properly and play it to a click [track] so I can add all this stuff that I always wanted to do live and make the show the songs that meant something to me.

“Of course Strapping meant something to me, of course. But it overstayed its welcome for me on an emotional level. The best Strapping material, the “City” era, I did that when I was twenty-three years old, right? When you move past that as a person, you find it very difficult to connect with that energy and make it believable. With the records I’ve been doing since that time like Terria and Physicist, Ziltoid, Ocean Machine, Infinity, Ki; that’s the stuff that resonates with me completely. It doesn’t require a mood for me to get in to do that; that is like me. The opportunity to make that huge has been like a dream.

“The reason I was late to this tour is because I recorded a lot of the shows on the American tour and I’m mixing this album, right, which I’m probably gonna put out real soon. An album of the tour. I want people in Australia and Europe to hear that this isn’t a joke – it’s not a milquetoast version of what I used to do; like a real mellow, well, pussy thing. Life is good dude; I wanna rock!

“What I’m trying to do is really make that known. It was a great vote of confidence for me.”

Despite having long, flowing and decidedly “un-heavy” passages throughout his music with records such as Ki, Infinity, Ocean Machine and Terria barely crossing over into metal territory, songs from all of these records and more will be prominent in his solo show. Some may scoff but will it ensure Devin imparting his unmistakable energy?

“Yeah; of course – but also, keep in mind and this is something that surprised me, when I think of my solo stuff I think of songs like Funeral or Earth Day or Deep Peace; Heaven’s End or something. Epic kind of mellowish sort of stuff. But there were songs that I forgot like Namaste or Victim or Planet Smasher or Color Your World; when we start playing that I think ‘Shit, that’s brutal!’ It’s not just one side of the spectrum, it’s not just the mellow stuff, and it’s just like – everything. A lot of the stuff I have written, like the Strapping Young Lad stuff, while it still has that energy, because I was responsible for about 90% of the music and vision for Strapping so to think that that doesn’t exist in the solo stuff is, well, inaccurate.

“The people that want the mellow stuff will be happy because there’s gonna be some beautiful moments, right, but the people that say they don’t wanna see it because its not gonna be heavy I say ‘Shit, it’s gonna be so heavy it’s gonna knock your head off.’”

Strapping Young Lad may be a distant memory, but Devin explains his reasons.

“Well, basically, when I quit Strapping Young Lad, the reason I quit Strapping are very obvious solution to something that I foresaw as a potential problem, that problem was becoming a parody, becoming a poser of something that at one time meant everything to me.

“To me, the way that I write music is very much a cathartic release what is currently emotionally engaging me to me. So of course, when I’m twenty-three years old, a record like City comes out. I did that in my bedroom when I was twenty-three years old. However, now that I’m thirty-seven, you know, last month or a couple months back my head was in Addicted, now it’s in Deconstruction. The idea being able to represent that kind of like over-the-top sentiment and go from one element of the other is ultimately is going to define what I do. It’s the extremes of it that are so vital to what my process is.”

“You’ve got a song like Terminal off of Ki, then on the other hand you’ve got whatever, Planet Smasher or Color Your World or Victim or something. To have them kind of side by side is a great representation of what I am, of what I represent artistically.”

But what is, in his view, the pinnacle of his output so far?

“I mean, honestly, they have all been an accurate representation of the headspace I was in so in that way, Punky Bruster is just as valid to me as Alien and Alien as just as valid as Ki, and Ki is just as valid as Ghost and Ghost is just as valid as Ocean Machine. It’s like each record is the same. It’s just a different type of dress on it, right?

“But recently the records that meant the most to me are Ziltoid, Ki and Addicted. That’s because they’re fresh to me. But if I had to narrow it down to one record, that would be Ki, I think. Because that one was a very accurate representation of a profound personal change. As a result of that, it still intrigues me because its so different from the rest of them.”

What many more philosophical metalheads might ponder is whether metal found Devin or that Devin found metal. For Devin, it was a soul-search that eventually yielded some answers and eventually, peace of mind.

“It found me. Absolutely. You know? I guess the thing is its like, you can dissect the way things work out until you’re blue in the face. I remember when I was smoking tons of weed that was my dilemma. The synchronicity that kind of you know, the coincidences that come when you pay attention to that becomes debilitating after a while because you focus on it. Take for example the idea that ‘metal finds you’ or ‘you find metal’ if you look at it as this musical force ‘found’ me, its very easy to like, shape that into some sort of paranoia.

“For me at this point, I’m really like just fuck it. The analysis of why things are the way they are? It’s ultimately futile. They just are the way they are, regardless of how they got that way. Dealing with the brass tacks of it is the goal right now and this four record concept and the overriding concept is what its all about – when you try and take apart the synchronicities, the fractal environments that create these kind of like universal truths or like, musical moments – if you try and pick them apart, it ultimately numbers and formulas, you lose the connection to what’s really going on.”

Devin’s speed and rate of output is near legendary – not only for a metal artist but for any musician. He says that in his creative process, “speed is the most important thing” now so more than ever.

“When I was smoking weed it was very easy to take a hit and sit around poke around on a riff for a couple of hours, eat something, come back, and poke around again. My attention span was better because I was dulled, right? Now it has to be so quick for me to capture these moments.

“When I do Deconstruction or Ziltoid, I have to be ready, I have to be healthy and I have to be awake. I sit down at a computer, I take a deep breath and I just go. As fast as I can work, the ideas come out. So any other type of medium I’ve been involved with my lack of ability to facilitate it quickly has been the deterrent at this point. Because as long as I get my catharsis out in some way, whether it’s in music or sex or art or whatever, as long as it gets out, I’m good.

The only other medium that I’ve found interesting – well, two things actually – the first is video. I really enjoy video editing, I love it. I started to learn the video editing programs are just like ProTools but visually. It’s just that the rendering makes me old.”, he laughs. “I love video. The other thing I like doing is furniture.”

Furniture?

“Yeah, carpentry and manual labor sort of stuff. I mean that, I love. So those two things kind of keep me going.”

What kind of furniture?

“Well, it’s really bad furniture, but ultimately, it’s like working with natural materials, like, cuttin’ things and hammerin’ things and making kind of like shelves or drawers or something.

“I’m hoping to make it out of driftwood. In my furniture world I want to take huge chunks of driftwood and make this crazy looking, natural, gothic style shelf and when you open up the drawers, it’s this super high tech thing is inside with blue lights and super converse black shit and everything.”

Ultimately, for the Project, Devin hand picked his collaborators and had set criteria for them because he knows his own idiosyncrasies and quirks – picking the right kind of people was essential.

“The number one and number two criteria [I had] – number one was of course patience. Because I’m such a perfectionist, I needed people that were willing for me to nitpick every element of the [songs] so it could be perfect, not a compromise. The other thing I needed was a group of guys that were self-contained.

“Because when I’m on the road, I really like being on my own. I don’t like parties; I don’t really like hanging out – every now and then for sure but it’s not my deal – I like to be on my own to write or think or whatever. So I needed dudes in the Devin Townsend Project that were gonna be offended by that.  They could be like ‘Oh there's Devin is being an idiot.’ So that was a high criterion for me.

“So I found three guys who I had played with before and had the patience to put up with my demands and when I’m not in the room, they hang out and play hockey with each other, Xbox hockey. They’re like, friends. They’re a bunch of mellow dudes that juxtapose my graphic nature.”

Graphic and musical – he’s the complete package.