Words: Nick Holmes @oldenick666
Photos: Tess Donohoe @tess_donohoe & Jamie Giberti @JamieGiberti
In the first part of our interview Canadian metal maestro Devin Townsend talked about readjusting to touring after months spent recording the second chapter in the tale of Ziltoid and how the modern music industry works (if you missed it, you can read the first part of our chat with Devin right here). Next he spoke about sober life, what it’s like working with women and his recent space country project Casualties of Cool. Oh… and why, as a punter, festivals suck!
A few years ago Devin Townsend hit a wall. Over a decade of life in the rock n’ roll world had taken its toll on his body, mind and spirit. Change was needed and that’s exactly what happened. He announced the end of his band Strapping Young Lad and retreated from public life to quit drink and drugs. During that time he also became a father and when he returned it was a different, more grown-up Devin. The skullet (balding mullet!) had gone and the smooth bonce was complimented by snappy suits, ditching the typical T-shirt and combat trousers metal dude look.
A musical metamorphosis also took place. He formed the Devin Townsend Project, initially intended to record four albums documenting the period of transition but it took on a life of it’s own. It spawned a fifth album, 2012’s highly acclaimed and successful “Epicloud”, which had an accessible commercial sound with strongly upbeat lyrics. Then, while preparing the return of his foul-mouthed alien creation Ziltoid, he announced he was also recording a country album covering yet another side of his personality. “Casualties of Cool”, released in May of this year, received praise from all angles including his heavy metal fan-base.
It’s very clear music is a form of therapy for you. Is that why there are two records? Like a split personality thing?
DT: A lot of how I function has been very bi-polar. As a person I’m sober, I’m not on psychiatric medications and I’m vegetarian. I walk a fine line of certain thoughts but I think I’m very together. I have kids and I mow the lawn. My process is very fucking schizoid but as a person I don’t think I’m a liability to myself or others in the ways I was when I was drinking and doing drugs. That being said my creative process is split into two sides, one of which is very pseudo altruistic and the other side is totally nihilistic. This (the double album) finds a common ground between the two. I think the common ground is….(pauses)… you have to let it go. Like just being able to say, “I don’t know. I have no fucking idea!” I can’t spend much more energy trying to control it.
Speaking of the darker side, “Casualties of Cool” has been extremely well received. You seemed anxious when you first spoke about it. Has the media reaction reassured you at all?
DT: I don’t listen. I can’t listen. It just freaks me out because I can read fifty good reviews and the only one I will pay any attention to is the shit review. Or I’ll read a good review and the only thing I’ll pay attention to is the one thing in it that they hate. That’s what I’m drawn to is the negative parts of that and it doesn’t help me. It makes me feel like second guessing myself. So I’m glad people like it but the only test for that record that means anything to me is whether it was right for me. It wasn’t right for me until I concluded it with “The Bridge” because I wanted it… I had to consciously make sure it didn’t end dark. Some friends of mine were actually upset and thought it should have ended dark. And I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s a choice and I’m not ready to make that choice yet.” I have to be very conscious of how the media that you put out and the media that you ingest affects others. Having a sentiment that ends in “everybody dies”? I just didn’t want that, whether or not it was a fantasy or whatever. I didn’t want that. I chose not to have that be my contribution. The same with Ziltoid.
You teamed up with Che Aimee Dorval, who previously worked on “Ki” (Devin Townsend Project, March 2009). What was it like working with her again? (It should be noted the pair recorded their vocals separately and did not actually meet up during the sessions)
DT: I think Che has got a beautiful voice. I love her voice and it’s nice for me not to sing. I don’t like singing, so it’s good for me. It hasn’t defined itself yet. I don’t know what it’s supposed to be or what the function of that is in my life yet. Luckily we (he and Che) get along. She’s a woman and that relationship is very risky. Specifically if you’ve been married as long as I have. It’s not like there’s anything between us, but there’s a dynamic between people that are creative together that you’d be a fool to ignore. So Che’s boyfriend, I got him to play guitar. It makes it so much easier, you know what I mean? They’ve got a great thing. And so when we’re together I think that it’s good because there’s no sense of me having an ulterior motive. I love her voice and I love women but it’s like, I had no time to feel that sort of shit. So our relationship is evolving very nicely because Che and Mike are together and I can focus on what I needed to be, and what the function of it is. It’s evolving.
Everything I do is about the process. It has nothing to do with me or the music. It’s like I don’t know until I’m further down the road. It’s like “Oh, that’s what “Infinity” (1998 album) was about. That’s what “Terria” (2001 album) was about.” I don’t know until I’m in it. So I don’t know what “Casualties…” is about yet. I think it’s about a bridge. I think it’s about…. you run into a certain problem over and over again. Until you find a way to conclude it, it keeps presenting itself. So I think that there’s been a lot of things as a result of “Casualties…” that have concluded due to the decisions made with the project. I love it. I think that because Che and I are becoming friends, the next thing will happen if it’s meant to. Let it go! (laughs)
You’ve also worked a lot over the years with Anneke Van Giersbergen. Is it different working with girls as opposed to guys?
DT: I’m particular. I’m good at manual labour and I’m good at helping people. I’m really good at supporting people so I have no need to be “the guy”. In fact I’m very uncomfortable in that role. Neither Che nor Anneke are divas in the slightest. In the slightest. That’s why we can be friends. Specifically when people fall prey to gender definitions and it’s like “this is what a woman does and this is what a man does” it’s bullshit. So when I find people who are like “Oh, I don’t do that because I’m a girl” or “I don’t do that because I’m a guy”, I think “Fuck, get over it.” Neither of them are like that. I just find that male vocals, I can do that shit. I think that my music benefits from having beautiful voices on it, so I seek that out. But relationships are a huge part of anything and it’s very difficult to have a functional relationship, man/woman, unless there’s really clear parameters in terms of what the relationship is and isn’t. I’m very fortunate that I’ve managed to find myself in relationships with women that are intelligent and strong and capable of the level of confidence that it takes to not sound like it’s desperate. It takes a long time to define.
You’ve played at numerous festivals over the years with your various bands. Are there any that really stick in the memory?
We did the Ziltoid one at Tuska (in Finland) and that was killer. Download with Strapping Young Lad. That was killer. Some World Cup thing in (South) Korea years ago. That was killer. I love playing festivals. It’s less personal. I like that. It allows me to play a role in a way that I think suits the music because I find that when I’m face to face with people it’s very difficult for me to not ramble. But when it’s big you can just do all the bullshit. Like “How are you doin’?!?!” It’s an act in a way that’s gratifying because I think the music lends itself to that sort of grandiosity. But I find when it’s in smaller venues I have a hard time not being just like (makes rambling blah blah blah noises). Like tonight I know it already because I’m uncomfortable. I’m gonna go up there and just talk, because whether or not that suits the music it helps me connect. Like I have to be able to say, “Look, I’m really fucking confused right now!” Like in general. Life, age, it’s a really confusing period. I’m not old but I’m not young anymore and that’s fucked. Specifically when you make your world based on selling yourself. I caught myself in the mirror the other day and I was brushing my teeth and subconsciously I was like, “I fucking hate you!” That’s the thought that I had. But it was the first time I was able, because it was subconscious, it wasn’t like I really wanted to feel that way. But it’s good to catch yourself. It’s like, “Ah! You hear that? Why’s that happening? Where’s that coming from?” You’re not the focus (at festivals). You’re one of many and that works for me.
What about as a punter? Have you got any tales to tell of going to events?
I can’t pee when there’s people around! So that sucks. If I know there’s people around waiting for the bathroom it just doesn’t happen! (laughs) I hate going to shows. I fucking hate it. Even when I was a kid I hated going to shows. I just don’t enjoy them. I remember going to see Jane’s Addiction at some big festival in like 1990 or something. I spent the whole day freezing my fucking balls off. I hated it. It sounded like shit, it was cold, it was expensive. It fucking sucked. I hated it. I remember thinking to myself like, “Note to self. Going to festivals sucks!” And even at that time I drank! I remember being hammered and still thinking, “This sucks!” (laughs) Fireworks were going off and everyone was smoking pot, and I was like, “Yup! I hate this.” My tip for going to a festival, other than staying home and watching “Antiques Roadshow”, is bring layers of clothing! It’s gonna be hot then it’s gonna be cold then it’s gonna rain and then it’s gonna dry out. Some hammered dude’s gonna fucking bang into your girlfriend and you’re gonna be stuck in this position where you have to like be all chesty about it or else you look like you’re…you have be all (puts on macho voice) “Hey! You banged into my girl!” And then you can’t back it up. You’ll be like “Oh fuck! I’m gonna break my thumb on your face!” Like fucking take THAT! (laughs) Bring water. Pee before you leave. Ask your Mum if you can borrow her phone in case you lose yours. Bring Angry Birds because the sixth band is gonna suck! You wouldn’t wanna go to a festival with me! (laughs)
If you were asked to curate a festival, what or whom would you invite to play? Who would be at Dev-Fest?
DT: Can I play bass in a country band? That’d be great! (laughs) I think in a sense I’m born to perform and I think I can do it well. But I certainly don’t enjoy the attention and it manifests as a type of insecurity that I don’t think is normal for me. I think that my position is life is that I’m really good at supporting people, but my whole role is being “the guy”.
Dev-Fest? Jeez. It sounds like an ulcer to me! (laughs) I’d do it. I’d pick a bunch of bands. A bunch of ambient artists, not Enya. She’d be a diva! (laughs) I only like one record by her which had the darker stuff on it. “Watermark” (1988) I loved it because it was dark. I loved it. LOVED it. But then it’s like (high pitched voice) “Ah! Ah!” You know? “Shepherd Moons” (1991) and all that shit. I like the Young Gods, Old Lady Drivers, Raccoon, Godflesh…
(Tour Manager appears and Devin says about Dev-Fest…)
TM: I’m going to open (the festival), do a bit of comedy! (laughs)
DT: I long for quiet. Everything is too fucking loud all the time. I don’t get it. Why does everything have to be so fucking loud?! Ziltoid…it’s fucking so loud! Like “Aaahahahaa!!!” But “Casualties…” is quiet. People were like, (grumpy voice) “Oh, it should be louder! Can you do that thing when you just scream?” And I’m like, “I don’t wanna scream!” (grumpy voice) “But dude! That’s what you do!” I’m like, “Alright, ok.” (comedy voice) I’m a fucking idiot! (laughs)
With that Devin departed to get some dinner. A couple of hours later, just as he predicted, he appeared rather nervous onstage. He greeted the enthusiastic crowd and admitted to being “terrified”. He also said it marked the end of a cycle in terms of the set and that after the two warm-up shows plus Sonisphere it’d be “a whole new thing”. After a hilarious, extremely dodgy Devy diatribe involving arses (of course!), the DTP tore through a short kind of greatest hits set mostly made up of older material from the Devin Townsend solo band era. As the show closed with “Liberation” and “Grace” from “Epicloud” and encore “Bad Devil”, it was clear that though the audience loved it Devin and comrades are definitely ready for a fresh challenge.
The second Ziltoid record, “Z2: Dark Matters” (which is a double album) is due for release on October 27th.
The Devin Townsend Project and Ziltoid will appear at The Royal Albert Hall in London on April 13th 2015. It is SOLD OUT but contact the venue about any returned tickets.
More info at Devin Townsend Official Website
Very interesting and in-depth interviews. A lot of thoughts I’ve never read about in other interviews; most of them negative. Which actually makes him and the whole “act” we are seeing him in very human. I like that. Though having been reading into this, other recent interviews and his tweets, it seems like the man needs a WELL deserved break.. He gave us so much. I’d love to see him in a role where he’d be more comfortable with in this period of his life. Whether that be playing bass in a country band, or just writing/producing music.
Really good interview. No need to rave about his art, because I think we all know he’s a genius. I find it amazingly courageous how open and vulnerable he is. Aside from his music having carried me and still carrying me through some seriously dark places in my life (and seeing the DTP live is an almost spiritual mind trip, for lack of a better word), it’s a big support, as I don’t think I’m the only one of his fans who struggles with demons similar to his.
Dev, I salute you!
To ‘the rest’ – come on folks, get into this guy’s art now he’s still around and active.