Pre-Retinal Circus Devin Townsend Interview



Roll up, Roll up! The Circus is coming to town tomorrow! After managing to twist all the rules of metal and music in the past Devin Townsend plans to take it even further with a three hour show of theatrical epicness. A giddy Lily Randall caught up with an equally giddy Devin to discuss the plans and other recent success in Devin’s hectic life…


It seems like every time we meet with you, you have just completed something massive and another insane project is on the horizon! So how do you do it?! What is your secret to not going insane?!


Man, I wish I could make it as romantic as people may believe it is but honestly I just don’t sleep enough. There’s probably a certain amount of self-loathing that goes into it as well. I think a lot of times you can put yourself across as being a lot more together than you actually are and I think that for me I like to play music, and I like to work and I like to make shows and all that shit but you know, I’m spread pretty thin. But I’m still here and I’m conscious so we’re 50% of the way there right? Haha!


So ‘Epicloud’ came out recently and you’ve been getting a lot of response from it. You warned a lot of people that they may not like it because it’s so different but have you been happy with the responses you’ve had so far?


Yeah, I mean at the end of the day I really like it and I think it’s a really cool thing and it says something that I’ve been wanting to say for a long time that perhaps I’ve been hesitant to because it’s not hip or whatever but now that the dust has settled, and the people who had the initial need to tell people how shit it was have got that out of their system and have moved onto another band, the reaction seems pretty good. People seem to really like it and the thing I keep saying to folks is it’s no different to any other records I’ve done in the past in that it’s just an idea or an experiment that I did. The next thing I’m doing is nothing like it so it’s interesting how tentative your association with certain genres are. It’s like, okay, if you’re doing heavy music you shouldn’t do anything different. Or as soon as you do 15 minute long progressive songs you’re not a part of that right? But ultimately I’m happy to do what I do and I don’t really feel like my identity rests on being involved with any of that.


A lot of people have explained how it can take a few listens for the album to really grow on you, compared to something like ‘Deconstruction’ that hits you in the face on the first listen. Were you expecting to play on people’s minds a little bit more?


I mean again, I wish I was clever enough to have that sort of mediation with it, I just write a bunh of stuff and if I’m compelled to do it because of some emotional stuff or connection to it I do it. But I very rarely think about it and I almost never think about how people are going to react to it. I mean I worry about it because I want to make something. You know, I want it to sound like this and this new record I’m making I was so divisive about but while I’m making it I know it’s gonna sound like that and then I’ll worry about it later. Then I finish it and listen to it and I’m like “Oh shit now people are going to think this about it”. My fear of being embarrassed by it is quickly trumped by a compulsion to do it so I just do whatever I feel like and move on.


So as you’ve said you’re working on the next record and by the sounds of it you already had some of these songs ready even when ‘Epicloud’ wasn’t released. Were these songs that were left over from ‘Epicloud’ or is it because they are completely different?


Typically how I’ve written is one thing in reaction to another to whatever it is I’m spending my waking hours on. So when I was making ‘Alien’ I was working on ‘Synchestra’ in the background because it was like a hobby. When I was working on ‘Decon’ I was working on ‘ghost’, or ‘Accelerated Evolution’ and ‘SYL’, or ‘City’ and ‘Ocean Machine’. It’s always been that way – my main focus and then something in the background that gives me a passion and almost always is like the polar opposite to it. ’Epicloud’ was a total bitch to make with the choirs and mixing was a slut so the whole process was so consuming that when I turned off the computer and went home, I’d play this country sort of stuff to wind down and wrote a bunch of that which I found to be very relaxing to listen to and I always wanted to hear it after ‘Epicloud’. As crass as ‘Epicloud’ is and it’s really over the top type of shit, ‘Casualites’ is really dark and really quiet and Johnny Cash in outer space type stuff and I thought that was something I really enjoyed listening to. That’s always a good sign to me that someone else might like it too.


So maybe that polar opposite you have is what keeps you sane then?


Maybe, I can see that actually because I know that working on ‘Epicloud’ without anything else would’ve just made me angry more than anything else because it’s so specific to make it move in a way and I hadn’t thought about how to do that. So like the production style, I wanted to be able to turn it up but all the ways to do that and the phasing and all that shit that I technically can’t do, I had to learn it. It was a fucking nightmare. I couldn’t get it so I’d go home and write and pick up a guitar. Because that was so technically difficult, the reaction was ‘Casualities’ which is this old, 50’s style amp and old guitar and no effects. It was a reaction to the hurdles of ‘Epicloud’ and it’s really raw.


So one week until Retinal Circus, we’re very excited!


Yeah me too!


How did the idea come about? Was it a case that you wanted to up your game after the epic four shows in London?


Well I mean a lot of these again aren’t really my ideas, a lot of it is management. They know I want to do theatrical stuff and they know I have this goal to make these grandiose things. We don’t have a huge budget but it sold well enough that we could do it at this cool venue and we’ve got a whole bunch of things lined up. It’s gonna be fucking awesome in one of two ways but either way it’s gonna be awesome! If it totally falls apart is going to be the most awesome fuck up I’ve ever done and if it succeeds it’s going to be great, so it’s a win-win! It’s a big deal for me and all the bullshit about the press and career and shit but I can’t think about that it’s like, if I stress about it we’re still going to have to do it so it’s awesome.


I remember the first time we met, you said how awesome it would be to one day work with an orchestra live and such, so in that case you’ve got the dream coming true…


Yeah, I mean it’s going to be interesting what’s going to happen. I mean okay there’s going to be people there that want to have a good time and I think that even if it doesn’t meet their expectations, they’ll see how much effort went into it and hopefully see the potential of what could have been! Haha! Look guys check out what could have been! Nah, I think it’s gonna be more than cool but it’s just something we’ve never done so your guess is as good as mine.


So at Tuska you did the Ziltoid set and you said how you did all the production, graphics and so forth. How much of a say did you have in the production of the circus. I mean how much could you physically do yourself?


As much as I could. There is a certain amount of focus between the band and the rehearsals and all that stuff, there’s no time, so we’ve got people but the staff is small and…well you’ll see, you’ll see. On paper it’s very interesting.


Let’s just say, so not to give any secrets away, will we get to see a lot more of your creative side?


Yep! Haha! Maybe, my lack of dancing ability might be able to surface.


Were you ever a fan of the theatre or was it from growing up and seeing the whole idea behind a great heavy rock show that inspired this?


Both of those things were an influence. I mean, I’m more music than anything else. The theatre elements I could take or leave, it’s not my forte but I like wasting money. I think it’s great because everybody’s always getting their shit in a knot about money and we do well but we’re certainly not flash. The idea of eventually getting stupid, absurd amounts of money and blowing it on a spectacle so absurd, it’s like ‘Why would you do that?’ and fuck it, why wouldn’t you want to go see that, it’s the stupidest thing ever! So with whatever money we got this time, we’re doing things with it that are out of our reach, which is what could go one way or the other. Ultimately I like absurd things; I like things where people question why you do that. I like the whole idea of ‘Why not?’ We didn’t have anything better to do so we’ll get Katy Perry’s type of production budget and then do fucked up shit! It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense, even if you hate the music you can still be like ‘Dude, did you see that?’


This is the first part of an experiment for me and ultimately I just hope people really like it and regardless of whether people really like it or its out of curiosity, it’s for the sake of entertainment and I take my music really seriously but I can’t take myself really seriously. A lot of times I get criticised for not taking myself seriously enough but everything I want to say the music says, the rest of it I don’t give a fuck about. I don’t want to sell myself; I know what I am, so if I sell the music that’s what it is. The music in my opinion says what I need to say and ultimately with performance I want people to leave with three hours of their week that didn’t totally suck. If that’s not a noble reason I don’t know what is. The story that I have written for it and I didn’t get to revise it, it’s cool enough, I think it’s got a decent enough moral but it’s not about that, the story needs music and I want to be able to put on big crazy spectacles that people want to go to. Who knows when you’re going to get hit by a bus? If you’re saving all your money for a rainy day and that never comes then you’ve spent all your waking hours trying to collect a virtual empire and if you ever make a ton of money to have something that blows people heads of it would be amazing,.


So what would you say is the best show you’ve ever been to?


Oh god, I don’t go to shows. Trying to think of one I liked. I remember I saw Billy Joel when I was like eight and that was cool. Mmmm, I don’t go to shows because I find them really boring.


So you’re doing three hours in one go and many will not understand how you could do that, but with such a big discography I guess you have to?


Yeah, the ticket is expensive too. The whole Retinal thing has been built up and built up that if you don’t try and do something cool people are going to be pissed. We can show up and play 45 minutes with a trumpet player! We’re trying to give people bang for their buck. I mean there’s going to be an intermission because everyone’s got to pee and I gotta pee! We don’t want to blow the opportunity and we didn’t have a ton of time to put it together. I know it’s been a year but we’ve been working on ‘Epicloud’ and ‘By A Thread’ boxset and touring, so we’re squeezing everything in. and this opportunity if we hopefully give it what we can at this point, will generate enough interest so that it can happen again in the future. I don’t think it’s going to be as budget as I’m making it out to be. Everyone’s putting in more than they need to let’s put it that way.


Does three hours make the set list a lot easier to choose?


NO! When you have 25 records that’s 300 songs, so we get to choose thirty if that, as some of them are really fucking long! Plus I had to keep in mind that I wanted to play stuff that people may not have heard live before but you don’t want to put all that in a set if you’re not that good at it! So it’s a mixture of songs we’re good at and songs we’ve never played so we’ll see. And hopefully, if we do fuck up the songs we never play, they’ll be enough other shit going on to distract everyone! Haha!


So you’ve got a lot of special guests planned but how easy was it to get people together?


A lot of people I wanted to get involved, I couldn’t. Either because of money or them touring. So, the show is different than I think people may be thinking. It’s not going to be like me coming out on stage and being like ‘And from this era of my career here’s so-and-so!’ There’s an element of that but …you’ll see!


So you’ve done so many collaborations both live and on record, so dead or alive, who else would you love to collaborate with?


I’m collaborating with a couple of people right now and they’re all alive, which is cool! Haha! Working with this drummer right now who is so easy to jam with. He was with Zappa for a while and he’s amazing and it’s just easy online. I’m doing something with Doug Pinnick (King’s X)and I’ve loved that band for so many years, so have that kind of involvement with him is flattering. But I don’t know. Also I play a lot of instruments so anything could happen!


So in the mini mag of Metal Hammer, you gave an idea of what the set list could be, including some SYL, which you shouldn’t have done, we wanted a surprise!


Did I? I think if there’s one thing that defines me it’s my fucking mouth. I’ve got to big mouth and I can’t shut up. But that was wrong of me I’m sorry.


So if you were to play Strapping…


Which I’m not. *smirks*


When you’ve played a couple of the songs acoustically is it strange to go back to playing them?


I don’t know, it’ll be interesting to see. Ah, its songs! The misconception of SYL is that it was a different person. People are thinking you’re not doing it again because you’ve changed. Well, I have changed but it’s still me! It was you being high on mushrooms but it’s still me, it’s all me. I think SYL gets looked at through such rose-tinted glasses in this sense that I’m crazy Devin. I’m just not there now. So when I start playing and rehearsing stuff it’s just there. One thing I have noticed about SYL now is there’s a lot of stuff I don’t like. I still think a lot of the stuff was killer but there was a lot of filler. It was less popular than I’m doing now but in hindsight people think it’s the best thing and I’m like, ‘Well why didn’t you come to the shows?’ A lot of times people want the metal cred that whatever they did in the past is better. But when I listen to the music, there was a lot of SYL that was a lot to do with the vibe, it doesn’t matter about the songs but it was the industrial phase that we were going through at the time to a certain extent. But when you take a part the records, there are a couple of songs, which I still love but the rest I wouldn’t listen to anymore.


So I think that rose-tinted glasses thing is interesting, specifically when you get a younger audience where it’s cool to like something people will have an issue with. It’s like being mad at your parents but I guess it’s fair to say I don’t have an issue with Strapping, I just don’t wanna do it. It’s not because I’m afraid of it or because I think it’s bad, it’s just I’m not into right now. There are certain songs that I’m into but towards the end of SYL I was bored out of my fucking mind because we were playing a bunch of songs that for me blurred into this thing where we play pulverising metal for an hour and it’s just one part of my personality. There’s a bunch of ‘Terria’ and ‘Physicist’ I don’t even like! I think it’s fair to be honest too with what you do and don’t like. At the time you think this is exactly what I need to say but how does that age? Some ages well but other parts aren’t awesome for ever due to production or lyrics or whatever. So with the stuff I’m doing now I’m trying to be a lot more aware of what is good versus what I think is good because I spent a lot of time on it. In a way, I’m jealous of bands that can do the same kind of sound on every album and have the same logo all the time but for me after a couple of years doing the same thing, I just get bored!


So you’re going to be streaming the gigs live worldwide on the night. How did that come about?


Oh god, everybody thought that we were gonna lose our ass doing this thing so we have to find another source of income. But what if I want to patch up a bunch of it after to hide us fucking it up? Everyone’s going to know we fucked it up! I’m okay with falling off stage but I mean musically, what if the mix is tonnes of dry vocals? Then they get the DVD and it’s all glossy, I want it to sound killer! If playing Strapping helps me get over some fear people think I have? Great. So if streaming Retinal Circus gets me over a so-called fear of being rough around the edges, then great. There’s nowhere to go than up from there! When I put up the Lucky Animals teaser with me dancing like an idiot, it’s had a ton of hits, so I was like well, I’ll always be conceived as more awkward now, so there’s your lowest denominator of me now. And in a way it feels liberating so hopefully the pay-per-view will be the same.


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