Words: Nick Holmes @oldenick666
Photos: Tess Donohoes @tess_donohoe
It’s hectic times once more for Devin Townsend. After several months in studios writing, recording and mixing the follow-up to 2007’s “Ziltoid The Omniscient” he crossed the big pond from Canada to play a few gigs and appear at festivals with Devin Townsend Project during the summer. At the same time he was preparing to perform the first ever live shows by his space country outfit Casualties of Cool. A very, very, busy man who kindly fitted in a chat with Rock Sins about everything he’s been up to.
At teatime on a Thursday afternoon and a few fans had already gathered at Nottingham’s Rock City for the first of two warm-up gigs by Devin Townsend Project ahead of appearing at Sonisphere Festival. Devin had not played live for several months and sat on a tatty couch in a dark corner of the venue he seemed a bit rabbit-in-headlights about being back on the road. Despite that he was in good form and gave a candid insight into what he has been up to recently as well as looking forward to the spectacular return of a certain coffee-obsessed alien.
How do you adjust from being hidden away in a studio to being back on tour?
DT: It’s so fucking weird. I just don’t know how to switch gears. I don’t know how to do it well. I’m such a mono-tasker. The first show is always a total head-fuck for me because I forget how to be a professional jackass. After a couple of days you’re like “Wagga! Wagga! Wagga!” (Fozzy Bear from The Muppets thing!) but the first day you’re like, “What the fuck?! There’s people here!” Every tour is like that so I should get used to it. But I unfortunately I’m not used to getting used to things either! (laughs).
I’ve been sitting in a chair for three months mixing and making stupid puppet things and writing tonnes of music. All of a sudden nine hours later you’re in a different country again and you’re trying to come to terms with it.
The Pledgemusic campaign has been a huge success. What’s it like to have that kind of backing?
DT: I feel humbled and honoured. I’ve spent the majority of my career being oblivious, willingly, of other people participating in what I do. That allows me to do it without second-guessing it all because I tend to do it trying to not second-guess myself when I write. Five to ten percent of being creative is writing and the rest of it’s just grunt work. So having never thought about the audience and my obligations to them, all of a sudden being confronted with the fact that not only are there a lot of people being very generous. They actually care and are very kind, and are very very much supportive of that frame of mind that goes into creating.
It really threw me through a loop. Not in a bad way at all. It’s just I don’t take compliments well. My mother did something nice for me the other day and I didn’t know how to react. I was like “I’ve got to get off the phone!” I don’t know how to respond when people are kind to me. I think it comes down to low self-esteem and as a result and after the Pledgemusic campaign I became hyper-aware of that underlying almost every decision that I’ve ever made. It’s been very therapeutic but in ways I didn’t expect. My first reaction to the campaign was I feel like my connection to what I do is changing, which it does for everybody every year as you get older. My first reaction was just “take that money and leave. Run! Disappear!” (laughs) I wouldn’t be able to go forever, I’d go for a year. I’d just be like pay off the mortgage and fuck off.
But it’s an investment that people have made in the creative process as well and I thought it’s too late on one level to not actualise the Ziltoid thing. Regardless of what people think of it. You just have to do that. You have to spend the money on that. I just spent so much fucking money on puppets and to get the right look and the sound and the right studios. It’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous project. It’s like a 1950s sci-fi orchestra, heavy metal thing!
So I had these voice actors come in and people were like “on the first record I don’t like the dialogue”, and I was like “this time it’s got to be like a movie”. But I have this tendency to write really fucking bad stories like Retinal and Casualties. These don’t make much sense but I like them. So this one, Ziltoid, I tried to make an actual story, something that has voice actors in and this big epic voice. I had them say harsh shit and I’m thinking it’ll be funny. But then I’ve got kids and they listen to it and they’re like, “what happens next? What happens to the War Princess? What happens to the Poozers and Planet Smasher?” and I’m thinking “they get kicked in the twat and it’s super rude!” But you can’t say that! (laughs) So I’ve haemorrhaged a shit-tonne of money making something that even if people don’t like it, in ten years from now it’ll be like “someone did that”. I think that is fucking worth it. It’s awesome.
Does crowd-funding present different kinds of pressures from that of a record company?
DT: I can’t force myself to make the same record twice. After the “Epicloud” the label was like “we want another one of those!” and I’m like “I want to make a space opera thing!” The label wants to invest money in a new record and they’re like “unless we can invest in something that can really work and your Ziltoid thing is kind of gonna fall on deaf ears”. I like commercial music. I always have. Since “Ocean Machine” (1997). I write that stuff and I like it. So I wrote a bunch of that and made it a double record. They were satisfied with that so in sense the industry’s changed in such a way that you can’t just tell the record company to go fuck themselves because you need them. I need them. I want to do these crazy musicals. I want orchestras and choirs and crazy shit that you need people to support.
Then with the Pledgemusic thing you have people who are involved with your trip. It’s a different type of pressure because you want them to be happy. You want them to feel like you’re making something that doesn’t cast aside why they like it in the first place. The irony is a lot of time people like it because I never paid attention to them before. But I’m going to pull it off. It’s going to be fun.
The Ziltoid story is a terrible story. Horrible story! (laughs) The birth of baby Ziltoid? (“Retinal Circus, 2012) I just wanted a giant green vagina onstage! Haha! I had to elbow that in somewhere. It was like “Ok, Ziltoid has a baby! Put the vagina onstage!” I was just like “wouldn’t it be fucking hilarious if we had that?!” I just had to make the story not stupid. I wanted it to have a beginning and an end. It has all these metaphors and quasi-shcizophrenic type of avenues that lose people really quickly. So I was like “lets make it like fucking Star Wars. There’s a bad guy and there’s Ziltoid and there’s a bunch of aliens and this happens and this happens and it ends like this.” That’s really hard. It’s not easy because it all has to play ball with the other stuff too.
All the music was already written so in a way it made sense but then I’ve got this song about a war princess. How does she fit in? She’s the mother of these other characters. By the end of it, it was like “now it’s fucked again!” (laughs) It’s not this metaphor. It starts and ends. I was writing Act 1, and I’m not a playwright so the combination of those elements make for a longer gestation period than someone who does it professionally. We have got everything in place for all those things. The movie and the TV show and the live show. My hope is that after this I can write tonnes and tonnes of musicals and not have to fucking perform them! (laughs) That’d be great because I just want to write. I want people that have enough respect for me to tell those fifteen musicians and singers to do this.
Is that a suggestion you’d prefer to reduce or stop performing live? Take on a more writer/director type of role?
DT: I’d fucking love to. It’s not even a hint. I’d love it. My role in music is still being defined and I have so much support from people and audience that I don’t know. It’s very overwhelming for me and Im trying to work through my insecurities so it doesn’t manifest as some sort of public neurosis. I’m hoping that’s not what Ziltoid is. I’m hoping but I never know until it’s done. It’s like you’re projecting your neurosis in that direction. I’m trying to force it to go in a certain direction but sometimes that doesn’t work. At first I was like “Ziltoid’s super silly!” But it’s not. It got really dark all of a sudden. I’m trying to figure out why and I don’t know. But I’ll know soon! (laughs)
I never have a clear destination. I think I do but it never ends up anything other than what it’s supposed to be. Even if what it’s supposed to be is crazy, confused or toxic, it ends up the way it’s supposed to be. After “Epicloud” people were like “we want something positive”. And I am positive but when I wrote that I was in a frame of mind that it was my intention. So I started writing all this really happy shit and then was like, ‘No. I’m actually feeling pretty grim about things in general. Not me or life or anything. So I was trying to force out this “We are the world” happy shit and it just wasn’t working. So it ended up being what it supposed to be. The DTP part plays into the story because the only way Planet Smasher can be forced to make sounds is he hates musicals. So DTP had to write a bunch of commercial sounding shit and he hates it. It’s very “West Side Story”, that kind of tonality. I love that Leonard Bernstein kind of shit. What I’m hoping is the end result of that battle between these two sides results in a conclusion that is permanent.
Click here for Part 2 where Devin speaks about making the “Casualties of Cool” album, working with women and who would play at DevFest if there was to be such a thing!
“Z2: Dark Matters” double album is due for release on October 27th.
Devin Townsend Project & Ziltoid will appear at Royal Albert Hall on 13th April 2015. It is SOLD OUT but contact the venue about any returned tickets.
More info at: Devin Townsend Official Website