Devin Townsend: Productivity and the Urge for Understanding — The HBIH Interview [Part One]

[Photo by Wessel de Groot]

They say you should never meet your heroes, because it will only shatter the image of them that you have built up inside your head. For a long time I followed this rule, and I avoided interviews with musicians I really admire — Arjen Lucassen and Ihsahn, to name a few — but when given the opportunity to interview Devin Townsend, a man whose music has literally saved my life in the past, I couldn’t resist. I knew full well that I wouldn’t be able to be one-hundred percent professional, not in this situation, but I tried my darnedest not to resign to my go to attitude — that of a squealing school girl.

But like I said, you should never meet your heroes, because you may realize that the dude you’ve been praising in your head isn’t the all-knowing and god-like figure you held them up to be. You may realize that he’s just a regular dude; with just as many insecurities and hang ups as you. You may find that his productivity isn’t a sign of his ability to churn out masterpieces with a snap of his fingers, but rather the result of a work ethic that has to continue, lest his dreams fall through. So yes, you should never meet your heroes because you may realize that you, and him, are on the same level. And well…well, to be honest, that’s a spectacular reason to meet your heroes…

Well, let’s just kick this off. Epicloud is just around the corner, and earlier this week you treated your fans to a very unique experience to it, but it didn’t really go as planned, as everyone saw…

[Laughs]

Can you describe what happened there?

So, when I delivered the record, I delivered a commentary as well. Every record that I’ve done recently, including the DVDs, has had a commentary along with them. And so, several months back when I delivered Epicloud to the label, I also included the commentary, which there was no practical use for because the bonus disc on the digipak is a whole other record, and there’s no room. So the A&R guy in America sent me an email last Friday and said, “Hey bud, I want to put out this commentary to give people a taste of the record, and give people a unique way to get into it.” And I was like, “fuck yeah, that sounds like a great idea.” But then I listened back to my commentary… man I just rambled on the whole time. So I redid the commentary so there was a little more space in it to hear what was going on in the music. Then I sent everyone a mail; I said, “I’m putting this up as soon as it’s done. Everybody good?” And I didn’t hear back from anybody, except from Steve, the guy whose idea it was, and he said, “go for it”. So I put it up Monday morning, but I suppose what happened was that the European label, and the Australian label, and the Japanese label, and everyone else who is licensing this weren’t included on the conversation.

[Laughs]

So essentially, the American A&R guy and I got mass amounts of shit about three hours after it was done. [Laughs]. When I talked to everyone else about it, I said, “okay well once it gets closer can we put it back up?” And they said yes.

Awesome. I just know a lot of your fans were really worried that you were in some sort of trouble or something.

You know, I appreciate that, but you know as an artist and as a person, I’m usually in trouble.

I was able to listen to it along with your listening party on Monday. And you know, I’ve also listened to all your other commentaries like on Contain Us, and I gotta say those sort of commentaries are a really unique and awesome way to experience the records –

Thank you.

– and I wish more artists would do something like that. What propels you to do that kind of stuff as opposed to letting everyone have a normal listening experience?

It’s very important for me for the audience to have an understanding of my motivations and why I do things. Without it, I get the impression that people think I’m either schizophrenic by changing my direction for each record or people get the impression that my motivation for doing something as commercial — which Epicloud is — is separate from an instinct that pushed me in that direction. So to be able to do a commentary on it allows me to be very, in my mind, articulate about my motivations for doing it. So whether or not people like the music is not really the point for me, I guess, but more that people understand that I’m doing it based on an honest need to make that statement. And then from there, it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not they like it, you know? But as long as I like it, and as long as my reasons for doing it are pure, I guess, then that’s all I really care about. And I guess its important for me to be able to have the audience understand that is the case.

Epicloud is a record that I put a ton of effort into and I wanted to make a completely positive statement. I think it’s very easy to make a ‘fuck you’ and always has been.

Oh yeah, definitely.

It’s a lot easier for me to make a fuck you statement than it is to make a, “Well here it is”, which I believe Epicloud is. And when I say ‘fuck you’, that can extend to something like Deconstruction, where everybody wanted me to make metal, so I made this record that is like super weird metal, with people shitting all over it…

[Laughs]

Right? It’s like, in a way I felt, like with Deconstruction, “Well, fuck all of ya.” You know? I don’t wanna make Strapping, and I can’t say that anymore cause I’m just getting bored of hearing myself speak about it. So here’s this, which in my mind really works for where I’m at as a dude, but you know, if I don’t wanna do something, I’m not gonna do it. It’s not an affront to people, it’s just that I don’t wanna be told what do do, right? So when it came time for me to make Epicloud, the biggest hurdle that I had to get over as an artist is thinking, “Don’t say fuck you. Don’t throw a curveball in there. Don’t be afraid to make something that people may like.” And I’m not talking about the Cannibal Corpse fans —

[Laughs]

— I’m talking about the people who like this kind of music. I like this kind of music, and I’ve been afraid to make something this sensible out of fear that I’ll get kicked out of the heavy metal elite club, or whatever, right? But after making Deconstruction, I’m like, “Oh shoot, you’ve been kicked out of there for years!” I wonder if I was ever actually in it, you know what I mean?

Definitely [laughs]. I think it’s funny you say you don’t want to make a ‘fuck you’ record, and you know, that rings true thematically as well as lyrically, because you’ve cut out almost all of the cursing in your music now-a-days. Which is a cool take, and it really adds to the positivity that you’re trying to create, especially with Epicloud.

Yeah, and I think it’s a lot easier to make something aggressive if you’re swearing, and saying, “I hate everything,” right? Like when I did Alien, man it was just, “I hate everything and fuck fuck fuck shit,” and as a result of that, it’s a record that’s just like… woah.

It’s a challenge to get through.

Yeah, it’s like, “This guy is having a tantrum, everybody stand back.” Right?

Yeah.

But I think, you know, once I finished that particular period of my artistic development, I realized that a lot of times when you’re having a tantrum, what you’re essentially saying is, “stay away from me.” You know? Like, “I’m a badass,” or whatever, but ultimately, you know, if you look deeper into it, a lot of the time that’s just like you’re afraid or you’re angry or you’re hurt, or whatever it is, and maybe the best way to respond to that is to not try and push people away artistically, but just be like, “I’m actually not a badass. I’m like…”

Just a regular dude.

Yeah, I’m just a person. I’m good at what I do. Shit man, if I make something aggressive, I’ll make something that’s more aggressive than most people, or heavier, or weirder, or whatever, but ultimately I’m not like… I’m not a hyper intelligent dude. I’m just me, you know? I think I’m slightly above average intelligence; I think I’m a hard worker; I think I know less about the nature of reality than I did when I was a kid.

[Laughs]

Seriously. People look at me and I just don’t know shit. I guess I’m just trying to like, get through. And I guess the whole point of making a record like Epicloud is for me to say, “Well here, I’m over it. Here’s what I wanna do right now, take it or leave it.”

As well as Epicloud you recorded — or began recording — another album in tandem, Causalities of Cool. What’s the status on that?

Well here’s the thing; to sort of capture what I just said about Epicloud, the best way for me to put this in perspective is, Epicloud is one of twenty-five records that I’ve made. Each record is completely different. I’ve never made a record like Epicloud; I’ve never made one like Ghost. I also never did a record like The Hummer, or Alien, or The New Black. They are all different. Ocean Machine, Infinity too. Each one of them has an identity, right?

Yeah, definitely.

So, Epicloud felt different than that. There was gonna be some people that were like, “oh well, this is the end of the road.” Like, “Dev’s made this sort of commercial statement, and that’s the direction that he’s going to follow.” And I’ve actually had that comment, but I’m like, “why would anybody think that?” In my mind, it’s just another record, and I’ve never made something like this, so this is where I’m at.

Casualties of Cool and Z² [the follow up to Ziltoid the Omniscent] are the next two records that I’m working on and they are as far removed from Epicloud as anything, as far removed from Epicloud as Ghost was from Deconstruction, you know? I just got a drummer for Casualties of Cool, Morgan Agren, and you just know he’s a phenomenal drummer. He played with [Frank] Zappa and Fredrik [Thordendal’s Special Defects], and all this shit. He’s an unbelievable drummer, and I’m getting him to play Johnny Cash style drum beats on the top of simple, sort of creepy country music. But the thing is, all the records are also connected; like, Causalities of Cool is connected to Epicloud, Epicloud is connected to Strapping, Strapping is connected to Ocean Machine; it’s all part of the same thing, and the lineage of how the records bleed into each other allows people to listen to any of these records and say, “okay this is the same dude, right?” So Casualties of Cool is written and mostly recorded at the exact same time as Epicloud and it has a lot of parallels. However, musically, it’s as far different as you can possibly get. You know what I mean?

But still keeping that Devin Townsend attitude, and signature style. People will still know it’s you.

Well, I think the only thing that is a signature I would say — I mean there are a few sonic things, like my love of echoes or layering, or all that sort of shit — but if I can be so bold to say that the one thing about my music that is a signature is that I do what I want to do, when I want to do it. You know, there’s no preconception as to… Okay well, even on a record like The New Black from Strapping where everyone wanted Strapping; the label wanted more Strapping; the band wanted more Strapping… but I didn’t want more Strapping, you know? So my lyrical and emotional content in The New Black was about that. You know what I mean? [laughs]

Yeah, I think everyone knows what you mean. [Laughs]

Yeah, like I’m saying, if you can find an angle in order to go at then the signature thing of just like, making an honest participation in my own process is just going to be incontinent.

Well, even if I can’t pinpoint a particular sonic point in your music, or anyone else, or even yourself, but the audience still is able to get the feeling that it’s you behind the music, as opposed to… I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like you’re phoning it in; it all still feels very honest.

Well, I really appreciate that, man. That means a lot. And Epicloud is the first record that I’ve made that doesn’t have some sort of chip on its shoulder, like trying to throw a curve-ball at people, you know? Everything I’ve done — I think in hindsight, whether or not I was conscious of it at the time — everything I’ve done has had this sort of, like, “well fuck everything.” I mean, that’s it.

[Laughs]

And even if I wrote something that I don’t even want, or something that people like, I’m going to make it very clear somewhere in the production, lyrically or thematically, that I’m done playing ball with people, and I think that as long as we’ve been making these last four records, I’m very consciously trying to figure out myself. By making these four records, I learned a whole lot, and one of the things I learned is, a lot of those sort of self destructive curve-balls I throw in are basically… I’m doing it to myself. I’m not doing it thinking that I’m… Well actually, I’m thinking that I’m making some sort of statement towards people, but ultimately you’re just trying to like, ruin the flow of certain things, right? So with Epicloud, I’m really consciously… well I’m aware of that part right now, and I’m gonna suppress it for this record. I’m going to make something that I think is really cool, and I think people will really like.

Who knows where we’re going to go in the future? If the music that we’ve written for and Casualties of Cool is of any indication, it’s incredibly bizarre, unique, dark shit, right? But at this moment, right now, it’s not; it’s Epicloud.

Very straight forward, very positive, very catchy music. And hopefully it will expand your audience.

Hopefully. Either that it will scare them away completely. [Laughs] But I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’m not bull fucking; just take that risk.

 

Click here for part two of our interview with Devin! You can pre-order Devin Townsend’s forthcoming album, Epicloud from here, and here. And don’t forget to catch him on his upcoming North American trek, The Epic Kings & Idols tour, with Katatonia and Paradise Lost.

– EC

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