by Ryan Meehan
Industrial metal singer/guitarist Devin Townsend was born May 5, 1972 in Vancouver, British Columbia; after picking up the banjo at age five, he moved to guitar at 12, and within a few years was leading the band Grey Skies, later known as Noisescapes. Sending the group’s demo to the Relativity label, Townsend was not only offered a solo deal but was also tapped to sing on Steve Vai’s 1993 LP Sex & Religion, a collaboration which further extended to the guitar god’s 1996 effort Fire Garden. In between, Townsend worked on a series of projects with Front Line Assembly, and in 1995 issued the solo Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing under the alias Strapping Young Lad. A stint with the satiric punk band Punky Bruster yielded the Cooked on Phonics LP before Townsend began work on the second Strapping Young Lad album, 1997’s City. In a move away from the industrial and death metal of previous recordings, he next formed Ocean Machine — with J.R. Harder and Marty Chapman — for the accessible Biomech, which was issued later that year. Townsend’s first solo album to be released under his own name was 1998’s Infinity and 2000 saw a mentally stronger Townsend release, the sharp, focused, and melodic speed metal album Physicist, while 2001’s Terria channeled an ambient pop sound. Next, February 2003 brought an eponymous Strapping Young Lad record which returned to a traditional death metal template. Sessions for this release took place during the same period as those for the acclaimed first album under the Devin Townsend Band moniker, Accelerated Evolution. This record was issued just a month after the SYL release, and Townsend received praise for creating a modern metal album that wasn’t afraid to nod to 70s and 80s arena rock in a post-grunge world. While 2006’s Synchestra didn’t quite reach the same high standard, Townsend continued to keep things fresh by following a straight-up ambient record — The Hummer — with Ziltoid the Omniscient, a rock opera about an alien who travels to Earth in search of the ultimate cup of coffee. In the immediate years that followed Ziltoid, Townsend took a break from the music industry to rest, recharge, and rediscover the cathartic aspect of composition. In March 2009, a shaven-headed Townsend announced an intended four-album sequence from the Devin Townsend Project, billed as an opportunity to show that he could create new music without the assistance of drugs. The strongest of these four releases was November 2009’s Addicted, on which he collaborated with former Gathering vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. Giersbergen returned for a central role on an unexpected, fifth Devin Townsend Project album in 2012, the pop-infused Epicloud. In 2014, Townsend released the ambitious Z², a double album that featured a Devin Townsend Project album, Sky Blue, and a conceptual album, Dark Matters, the latter of which was a sequel to 2007’s Ziltoid the Omniscient. We are honored to have the legendary Devin Townsend as our guest today in 7 questions.
RM: What was the most surreal feeling you experienced during the Zed Squared performance at Royal Albert Hall back on April 13th; and why was the moment associated with that specific emotion so special to you?
DT: I suppose ‘accomplishment’ would be the most surreal feeling at that show. I have spent many years swimming upstream in terms of progress, and to play a show of that caliber and have it work out so well was a surprisingly foreign experience, but one that has allowed my work and professional world to grow from since, so I certainly welcome it. =)
RM: In all your years of layering stringed instruments on tape, what is the highest number of guitar tracks that you have recorded for use on a single song?
DT: Well I’m not sure…I think the guitar parts are only a fraction of what the ultimate number of tracks are comprised of. Typically, I follow a sound in my head until its orchestrated in the closest way to the vision, and that can include any number of sounds and instruments other than guitar. I’d suppose actually that vocals would amount to the highest track count? I can’t imagine I’ve ever really gone over 200 tracks, but that’s also a very extreme circumstance.
RM: I see that on April 27th you posted something interesting on Twitter where you stated “Huh…wrote DTP today. Got a direction for that now too…When I least expect it, it appears”…but you also had recently discussed the possibility of taking a year off to sort of get yourself recharged and ponder what the next chapter holds for you…Is it possible for someone like yourself who is always a constant source of a variety of ideas to truly take that much time off without constantly feeling the desire to develop something that could end up being a musical and/or visual masterpiece? How would you best summarize the consideration of eventually taking a break from all things artistic?
DT: Well to be honest, I actually have taken a year off…maybe more in a way. I toured hard for many years, and this past year I’ve just been writing and getting prepared for the next phase. To be frank: My job, (like most people’s jobs) does not allow me to take a year ‘off’. Unless someone is independently wealthy, that’s just an absurd fantasy that there’s no way I can afford. However, I felt I could take a year of redirecting my energies to things that allow me to be at home a bit more and prepare, so in that sense I have taken a bunch of time ‘off’ since Z2. I do however, always feel the need to write or be creative in some capacity, but that just comes with my personality I guess, so I don’t resent it or try to ebb the flow.
RM: In February you appeared on the Music Business Facts Podcast and you revealed that after all is said and done, you make what equates to about $60,000 a year before taxes. This was surprising to me not because of the dollar value, but because usually a lot of artists are pretty guarded when it comes to discussing their finances…What was the purpose of sharing that information with the metal community; and which gear in the Devin Townsend machine ends up being your largest expense?
DT: My wife works too, and we are eating, you know? I get lots of free gear and if I keep playing my cards right, perhaps one day I’ll have enough saved to truly take a year ‘off’. But that really answers your prior question about taking time off as well, and perhaps I’m transparent with these types of things to give people a perspective on it all. The current climate in the music industry is such that records no longer sell, and streaming and downloading kind of reign. However, if as an artist you choose to complain about that, there’s a whole army of folks online that are salivating at the mouth to tell you to ‘get a real job’, so my response is to use YouTube and Spotify to spread the word of my work, and to remain humble about money in the long run. There are the occasional perks with publishing etc, and to be honest as much as I’d love to have a million dollars in the bank (who wouldn’t?) I truly can’t complain. Ever. I make a living making music. I’m very grateful.
RM: Back in 2014, you recorded a song with (producer) Brian Howes that you described as “poppy sounding” but you didn’t end up releasing it, citing the current hard rock undertones that exist in the popular music of today…When you hear a lot of popular music which features the guitar as a primary instrument, what are some of the first things that you notice that you would change with regards to the tonality and production of the finished product? Do you view those examples as aspects of the industry that exist separately from your own creative process, or do you ever consciously use those as reference points for what you don’t want your own music to sound like?
DT: The experience with Brian was confusing as I ended up finding myself very uncomfortable with my place in that relationship. It was unexpected. I believe that considering we had known each other since we were young, I came into it with expectations that ended up not coming together. It was a session that was structured in a way that was very contrary to my connection to writing and not as personal as I had assumed it would be. As a result, I think I got my nose out of joint and was interviewed the following day and I reacted poorly in print. It ended up as an ugly situation between the two of us that I regret. My expectations aside however, I was out of line and it was a bummer.
However, I stand by the thought that if music is written from the frame of mind of formulas vs a personal connection to the music, it doesn’t interest me to participate in. In fact, it makes me upset in some odd way that I have a hard time keeping to myself. I guess I’m still trying to figure out why I reacted in the way that I did, as it was me that came to him and not vise-versa, but I think in some way I felt insulted and then was promptly interviewed the following day. The more time passes, the more I’m starting to feel that the fault lay in my unspoken assumptions, and as such, I came out of that situation looking foolish. Live and learn though.
RM: In what ways does the music that you are currently working on differ from the material on “Zed Squared” and “Epicloud”? Do you have a certain set of criteria when it comes to evaluating the degree of change that exists on any new project compared to the work you’ve done in the past?
DT: I need an angle of some sort. An emotional perspective that is clearly articulated, or a tangible thing such as the choir in Epicloud, Orchestra on Deconstruction, or something that inspires momentum. Otherwise, it becomes tedious and the tendency is to repeat myself. Transcendence – the new record – is inspired by a desire to change myself in some fundamental ways and the consequent work that went into doing so. Control has often been a hang up of mine rooted in fear, so working through that consciously with the people in my life has been motivating for the artistic angle of this new record.
RM: Which of the outboard effects that you are using in your current guitar rig has ended up being the most beneficial to your writing process and why?
DT: I suppose the gear angle hasn’t been as big a deal lately. I use Fractal and Framus as well as a host of other gear, but I’m happy to say the motivations for the current music hasn’t come from pissing around with sounds. I believe I worked to get my ‘sound’ over the past while, and not I’m simply using it.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything gargantuan in the works that we should know about?
DT: A symphony is next. I’ll keep you posted =)
Official Website: http://www.hevydevy.com/
Devin on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dvntownsend
Devin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dvntownsend
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