Interview with Devin Townsend 2011*Transcript*

There are very few artists in metal who command such acclaim and respect like Devin Townsend. He’s a musical genius to some and an acquired taste to others but considered a talented artist regardless of what side of the fence you’re on. With a prolific back catalogue of works spanning 18 years he’s certainly distinguishable and diverse. In most metal circles he is best known for his brutally tectonic outfit Strapping Young Lad, but has gradually garnered a loyal and avid fanbase circling his solo output. His latest four-album masterpiece, under the guise of The Devin Townsend Project, showcased what a creatively reinvigorated Townsend is capable of, a work-a-holic and showman in equal measures, he has created four albums that embody the very essence of his sonic psyche. Next Monday sees Townsend closing the Project with the sensory assault ‘Deconstruction’ and ambient juxtaposition ‘Ghost’ being released. Earlier in the year, we bought you a short feature from Lily Randall and as a treat we thought we would give you, our readers the whole transcript of the interview. Enjoy!

Do you see Ki and Ghost, being the two ambient albums, as book ends for the other two albums in between and did you purposely do it in that order?

I think so because it’s like a beginning and an end and I think that if it had ended with Decon, the impression it would’ve left with folks would’ve been pretty nerve-wracking. But the end of Ghost like loops right into Ki so if you have all four together it becomes kind of like one thing. I think the thing with Ghost though, there’s nothing about it that is made to make you feel any other way other than good and with Ki I definitely sabotaged that on several occasions where it would get really heavy or a moment where all of a sudden it was too loud. I remember when I was working on Ki, I always test things in my living room and in my car to make sure it all works and I had some people over and there we kids there and Ki’s playing and its totally fine and then all of a sudden it just gets louder and louder and people start to look around and we had to like turn it down. And then with Ghost, I remember playing it and no one knew it was on and I think that was kind of the whole intention because after Decon was finished I was hoping that it would be a record that people could think about things to whether or not that’s Decon or the records or something else entirely. It doesn’t really impose itself but I think if you want to pay attention to it its pretty complicated in its own way, in terms of layers and the mix and all that.

I’ve always wanted to write a record like that since I was like 10 or 12, making a new age type record is important to me and I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it had I not done Decon because once I did that, you know the cat’s out of the bag like there’s no need to make Ghost like I did with Ki and add threatening parts or whatever it’s just like there it’s done. So technically in a way the project in some sense ends with Decon and Ghost is like a new lease on life in a way. Out of the four records it’s definitely my favourite.

Which of your four are you proudest of?

I’m equally proud of all of them, in a lot of ways but I think the thing I like about ghost is that it was done without drama, like Ki there’s a lot of drama, Addicted! there’s a certain amount of drama and Decon was like stupid, so to be able to do a record where it was fun when we were recording it there was a good vibe and I was excited to go to the studio, and there was a lot of improvising and Kat who plays the flute on it, her music has influenced me a lot over the years so to have her involved was also, it was just nice. It’s been so long, if ever where I’ve been able to make a record and at the end of it I was like Ah it was really cool.

Would you say then that you’re a real perfectionist about your music? Do you always tend to look back and think that you wish you’d done it differently?

Well I guess I am with everything in a certain extent, and not wish that I’d done it differently but at least just go *face palm* “Oh god” and that goes for life as well as music. I think I’m a perfectionist but also I’m not perfect so it‘s really frustrating. It’s never right so knowing that, I’m pretty good at letting it go, like there’s a certain part of me that says, “it’s not going to get any better than this” or “this is the most I’ve got patience for at the moment” or whatever. So I think I’m a perfectionist in my head but in reality I think I’m pretty good with compromise *laughs*

In the past you’ve mentioned that you go through different life routines (diet/meds etc). With these two did you change anything or was it just you had so many ideas in your head and you just worked with them? Do you think you more comfortable with yourself?

These albums were both written several years back so it’s like I was more just actualising them at this point. But yeah, I definitely felt like I was able to confront a fear that I had of myself, ultimately that I had a fear of making heavier music or whatever. With these two , because I knew the amount of work that it was going to take and the amount of effort it was going to take and I was really hell-bent on letting it get the best of me so keeping control was a big thing. My routine was very funny because in the past I’ll think I have to do this and stuff; this time I was like I’ll take the weekends off, I’ll go for dinner at 5, and if it gets overwhelming, I’ll watch Antiques Roadshow like really. And then by not allowing it to take control I think it was easier for me to be like really creative with it because I wasn’t as self absorbed with the ideas, I wasn’t as fascinated by them as I used to be. And letting them flow, I think a lot more came out rather than be super attached to any of the ideas and then get hung up on it, so it was a lot of work but it wasn’t like some sort of mental chaos it was just tedious. It was a lot of recording, a lot of editing, and a lot of work so I just watched a lot of movies and got it done ha-ha.

So you said you thought you had a fear of playing heavier stuff, with ‘Deconstruction’ you can kind of hear how that is trying to escape but you’re kind of containing it. Would you say it’s kind of a swansong for SYL?

Well I think I’ll definitely be making more heavier music, I mean I always will but I think what I was trying to prove to myself was that Strapping didn’t control me. In fact, since I broke the band up there’s been a lot of people who say, ‘We miss Strapping’, and I’m like yeah but I am Strapping in a lot of ways. Anyway, when I realised it doesn’t control me, I thought I’d let that part of me have its say, I’ll let that part of me have free reign to say whatever horrible thing it needed to say. But what I found is that from the shadows of my mind when I was clouded with drinking or whatever, the things that that part of my personality wanted to say was a lot more difficult for me because it didn’t have to be accountable. It was like a mask. I was like you can say whatever you want to say but just make sure you’re saying it, be yourself. If you really feel the need to be fucked up then go for it but if you do, that going to be you and I found that by putting that part of me in the light, well not the light but for it being accountable for itself it was totally like a pussy ha-ha. So I think the point of the record is just like ok, not that you’ve cleared this, now that we see that you’re not capable of standing up with those sentiments, I control this and if I choose to do this type of music it’s because I choose to do it and that self destructive part of me is not allowed to limit my desire to do any type of music. And I think that’s almost where Ghost came from because once I made that assessment of the thing in me that I was always afraid and I thought that I couldn’t control it; once I realised that I could control it, it was like okay let’s do something that I really wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to make a record like Ghost I always wanted to make something that was going to make people feel nice and I always wanted to make something that wasn’t like a big drama. A lot of my things in the past have just been like drama drama drama. Alien or Infinity or any of that shit is so like self absorbed with self importance but Ghost was just a bunch of songs, with a bunch of words that make me feel a certain way, and I like it that way.

With the lyrical content, even though the four albums are a concept, are the albums lyrically linked?

Oh yeah I mean it’s not only between these four records, it goes back to Ziltoid and Strapping and Ocean Machine, it goes back to all of it. They’re not all linked necessarily like on purpose, where from the first note I had this grand design, more so that it was like I feel like everything I do is a working progress so Ill have an idea systematically that I’ll introduce on a record and then as I change I’ll think about how I re asses that sentiment and then I might use a lyrics or a certain passage that on a later record that almost reiterates it in a way to show how this relates to now or a current situation or this is how in a sense how that lyric then doesn’t mean as a much now or conversing over something that I thought was really subtle back then but is really important now. So all the records I think are connected in that sense and I think in terms of the four records there’s a chronology that goes between all four, essentially the story is trying to conquer that sort of fear of that creative obstacle and once it is addressed then I feel like even with Ghost and into the future that I’m free to do whatever I want. I wanted to make Decon not just for other people I needed to make it for myself too I like that type of music too but in the past because I’d done so much of it, it was difficult for some people in some sense to see past that, and the fact that I do a ton of other things. So these four records is like, well here’s four things that are all of equal importance in terms of the project and hopefully it will say that I’ll do whatever I want to do. If I want to do metal I’ll do metal, if I want to do new age stuff ill do that if I do pop ill do pop. And the reason I want to do it is because I really like it not because I’m trying to prove anything.

I mean you’ve always been willing to talk to your fans…

I think it’s because in a lot of ways its always been misinterpreted and it’s like if not misinterpreted then I’m never going to be able to control how people like interpret it but I think it’s important for me to at least say what it means to me. Whether you think I’m lying to you or not, this is why and then at least from my point I’ve said what I needed to say.

A lot of people have made the transition from SYL to DTP. Recently you’ve had a lot more recognition, do you think there’s a certain album that acts as an entrance into DTP. Obviously they are so different. I mean one person will say I like Ziltoid but I don’t like the rest…

Oh there will be a lot of them ha-ha! I mean some of the bands I really like in heavy music take Opeth for example they’ve been Opeth since day one, so everything they do, if you like Opeth, you’ll like new Opeth. I mean there’s variations of it but it’s of such high quality that it’s cool but I think if somebody likes, say, Addicted!, they may hear something like Ziltoid and think that’s really stupid. Then there’s somebody else who might be attached to Love? from Strapping and then hear Ki and just think that it sabotages it. I think the thing that makes people like what I’m doing musically is ultimately that it’s following a kind of story line because every year’s evolving from the last one and it’s almost biographical. So I think, there’s been some times when I’ll be sitting with people or some people will be talking about the best Meshuggah song or the best Gojira song or the best Opeth song or the best Morbid Angel song and someone will be like “Oh I’ve got to show you this Devin song!” and they’ll put on something from Synchestra which just like this weird sounding, oddly produced bizarre thing and everyone’s just like “well no wonder we don’t like Devin” but in context it was absolutely supposed to be that way production wise, learning through that so I think that what I do has always just been an accumulative thing. I think now with these four records which one would I say people start with? I would probably say Addicted to be perfectly honest because it’s like pretty simple. The production is maybe a little off the wall and it’s pretty dancey but I mean melodically it’s pretty easy to get into. And then from there I think everything from Ziltoid to now I’m probably most happy with because production wise, it actually doesn’t sound too bad, whereas some of my past stuff, like elements of Physicist that sounds horrible! I put on Accelerated Evolution the other day and I couldn’t even listen to it, it sounds so bad! But you know I think the thing is all those things were me learning how to produce too.

I’m still in this process with these four records where you know Decon is a pretty intense record and I think the people who like it are going to be really into it. So I think that it’s going to be at least another year or so of me explaining Deconstruction and how it relates to Strapping and I think it’s going to be a while until the Ghost and acoustic elements of my music are going to be popular enough that people will say “we want that and not that”. I mean I’m looking forward to it and I’m really hoping that it comes together because I think that stuff is really healthy for me. It’s not like I couldn’t make Decon at this point, it’s not like I didn’t want to its not like I couldn’t make Ghost without Decon so it’s just kind of like …

Making sure you both love them equally?

Yeah, but if not like babies but like two friends but when the chips are down, who do you choose to hang out with? It’s not like you don’t like one of them but like really. I think that going into it I knew I’d always go with the Ghost direction but I needed to say to that part of me that likes heavy music and the people that were from the Strapping era, “look, it’s not like it goes away, it’s just different now”.

You always seem very busy! So what projects are next?

*laughs* Every time I make a new record I make a prediction of the future and it always ends up being wrong. I’m trying to be good with holidays and stuff but we’ll see. My future projects, okay well I’ve got four things I guess that could happen next. One of them is a big convoluted musical that is really OTT and like a lot of orchestral Ziltoid-esque ups and downs and a lot of dynamics to it. But that’s a real big undertaking. My gut on that is that I don’t know if I got that in me right now. The other idea is for this really odd project that’s like Godflesh-y in a way but with like a lot of bass and a real big gothic Icelandic choir and then a church organ. Really like Halloween-y, spooky heavy music. And the other one is a pop record, like seriously a pop record like electronic dancey shit. But the one that is making most sense right now is I’m going to right more songs that sound like the more commercial sounding that I’ve done in the past but with a hard edge. Like certain things on Addicted, Life, Christeen. That’s something that I’ve always written and so that could be it too but I think the way that it’s going to be decided is that I’m going to take some time off and then when I pick up the guitar I’ll see what wants to come out. But it’s probably going to be something like one of those four.

With the visual idea of the musical, you’ve just done the tour. Do you think that now you’re finding yourself again through these records your live performances are going to change?

I get this idea that Ziltoid is going to take on a different role, I think he’s going to become like an MC but I think I’m able to get up on stage and perform this show more rather than writing a whole thing but with a choir or guests and then Ziltoid ends up like running the show because I really like that character, I like being him but it’s like musically its easier just for me to riff with him than to write music for him. The further I get into the character he’s not really a musician he’s just like a newscaster or something. So I think the show is going to evolve in ways that he’ll have a bigger role, I think the visuals are going to end up being a bigger part of what we’re trying to guide people through and they’ll probably be more people on stage.

But then there’s the stripped down shows in November, is that something you’ve always wanted to do?

Yeah, in fact I think that just being able to play with an acoustic guitar for a few people is truly playing for them. I think the whole hyperbole that goes along with doing Ziltoid and choirs and tapes and all that shit is its fun but it’s a show more so than playing for people. So I think it’ll probably evolve in both ways and I think the goal for the show is to be more and more fun, I like the idea of it being fun. And then for the acoustic stuff just more and more direct.

You know you’re going to be a tear jerker for a lot of people!

*laughs a lot!* That’s the whole idea I mean if we can really make something that’s cool because I’ve always been a pretty nerdy dude, so to find myself in a position with the opportunity to do these things, I’m also realising that a lot of what makes live performance so fun for me is that so much of the music that we do and the communication that I do is based through the computer that it neuters that real experience. And I mean the music has all been so heavily based on real experience for me that am always nice to share it with people and have the reaction that they relate. Because I get to share certain things. The other day I was sitting in the hotel room just like man, the world’s pushing itself further and further away from each right and its distressing because I’m not a fighter, I’ve got no desire to fight like the man or whatever and conspiracies and people hurting each other and doing nasty shit to each other, my first reaction is always to protect myself or I’ve got to make myself more callous so it doesn’t affect me. But I think by playing shows I recognise that we’re all in the same boat. It makes it a little easier to take in some ways I guess. That’s what I noticed about playing, it makes me less insular, and I mean I’m usually like fine just sitting on the couch watching TV for the most part. Ha-ha so if that’s the case it’s nice to be able to take that as far as we can.

And with the orchestra on Deconstruction is that something you’ve always wanted to do?

*laughs* Totally

Do you think it only worked for that album or do you think you’d have wanted to use it on other albums?

IT was really expensive but it was one of those things where I was like, I can’t afford it but fuck it because if you’re going to do it you might as well do it. A few years back I was saying if we do it we should do it on something that’s a guaranteed seller but I don’t know how to write a guaranteed seller so we might as well put it on the most absurd thing we do. I think it’s cool because there’s no rules to that record at all, we’re just going to make something that’s so OTT and I like that, as a person I think I’m pretty safe I’m not a real risk taking person, I mean sometimes in very slight ways but I’m pretty Canadian but in terms of music I think it’s good to just say fuck it. I’ve got so many friends in Canada that make a ton of money playing shitty pop so it’s nice to be able to be different about it. So that’s where the decision was made, if we were going to invest the money in something, then lets invest it in the Cheeseburger song! Hahaha Well the whole point of it being, were so close to the edges of society at this point that damned the torpedoes.

Interviewed by Lily Randall

Deconstruction’ and ‘Ghost’ are released June 20th on Inside Out/Hevy Devy
Devin also plays two separate special shows @ London Union Chapel on November 10th & 13th. He performs his albums ‘Ki’ and ‘Ghost’ respectively in their entirety.

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