Interview: Devin Townsend
We have been keen to grab a chat with Devin Townsend for some time. The Canadian prog-metal maestro is a very busy man. 25 years into his career and still only 44-years-old, he released his 17th studio album “Transcendence” last September. He is currently touring with Devin Townsend Project in Europe and we caught up with him ahead of his UK dates, which begin this weekend, to find about the current mood in the camp, the upcoming 20th anniversary shows for 1997 masterpiece “Ocean Machine”, his autobiography, dark country project Casualties of Cool and his adults-only symphony. Phew. Enjoy!
LTW: How is life on the road nowadays?
DT: We are six and half weeks into an eight-week long tour, and considering the length of that and the close quarters that we have to have with each other, for the majority of it it has gone very well. The shows have been overwhelmingly well-attended and I think live we are probably playing better than ever.
LTW: It certainly appears to be a proper, stable band. That must be a really positive thing
DT: I think we are kind of on the cusp. I think Strapping Young Lad was still a little longer. I have been with these guys in one form or another for longer than SYL, but the DTP officially started in 2009. So that’s about eight years. I think Strapping has two more than this, so we are getting close to that.
LTW: “Transcendence” (released in September 2016) looks to be a more mutual effort this time around, with the whole band featuring on the credits
DT: Definitely, some collaboration happened. It’s also fair to say that the majority of the record was written as all the records have been, and that is I tend to do elaborate demos on my own and present them to the band. The difference being this time it was supposed to be only ten songs and rather than just saying, “This is what we are doing,” I presented them an option of 50 songs and we chose the ten that we all liked best. Then we went about the process of deconstructing them and learning the parts in a way that in a way we had not done before. As opposed to me saying, “It goes like this,” I was more inclined to say, “This is the reason why the song exists – to put across this feeling.” When I was showing them their parts I was like, “if you have any ideas to make it any more dramatic, then please go for it.” Other than that we actually wrote the song “Failure” together in a different way than that. That was actually a very collaborative song. The overall sense of “Transcendence” was a subtle change, which was profound for me because I had never let anybody have that sort of access. I have to say it benefited the record a lot and it was a great learning experience for me.
LTW: One song that sticks out on Disc 2 of the Special Edition is “Canucklehead”! A great title and it is kind of like Marty McFly going apeshit at the school dance in “Back To The Future”!
DT: Haha!!! That’s a good reference! (laughs) I heard that structure so many times in my life, you know? (laughs) “Good Golly Miss Molly”, Beatles songs and whatever! I was recording in LA at one point. I think it was during the Z2 (2014 album) session. There’s very few differences between America and Canada in terms of personality-wise. There are some subtle differences like anywhere, but it’s a pretty similar culture. I remember feeling a little like a fish out of water because I’ve got a bit of a Canadian accent (laughs). So I wrote “Canucklehead” as an ode to that.
LTW: Might it get an airing at the live shows?
DT: It hasn’t been played live. I have so many songs that I have recorded or have on the back-burner that could possibly be a good thing live. But I think also because I am so many records deep into this career I have to be careful that I don’t use up precious set time to do things that maybe have a real niche appeal. You know what? You are the first person who ever talked about it to me! (laughs).
LTW: That was a long-winded “No!”, then. Hint taken *sulks*. Moving on, “Ocean Machine” will be played for the first time in full at Hammersmith Apollo next week, marking 20 years since its release. A warm up for Plovdiv? (outdoor show in Bulgaria – see tour link below)
DT: It (Hammersmith gig) is a thing in itself. Yes it is the “Ocean Machine” show, but we are able to do some special things for it this time. It is another example of the strange ethos of this band in that at the end of an eight-week tour the second-to-last show is a special show that requires a shit-tonne of preparation and effort and rehearsal! (laughs) We have spent the whole tour working on it. Any days off that we had have been working on “Ocean Machine”. Any time off we even had on the bus has been about learning the parts and making sure it as good as it can be. My hope is that it will be an event that is very special for everybody, specifically at that venue. I have high hopes for it and I think it’s going to be awesome.
LTW: Another one ticked off your legendary venues played, after Roundhouse, Union Chapel and Royal Albert Hall…
DT: We just keep trying to check them off the list, right? (laughs)
LTW: What visual elements will there be?
DT: I am trying to go for something a little more elegant than bombastic on this one. It’s not “Ocean Machine” with a bunch of rock videos playing behind us. It’s “Ocean Machine”…. and we are in the middle of the ocean! (laughs)
LTW: Why do you think so many fans – older and younger, long-time and newer – name it as their favourite album of yours?
DT: I think it struck a chord because a lot of what I was singing about back then was really fresh for me. Love and loss and all those big sort of things that are typical in songs that appeal to people were brand new to me as a kid. Now I have to dig deeper thematically to find things that resonate with me. It is not as simple as love and loss anymore, so I think “Ocean Machine” holds a place for people – and myself – because it is an archetype of what I continue to do. It was really about the big stuff in way that I simply can’t connect to in the same way anymore. These things aren’t new to me anymore. I think there’s a quaintness to the emotional content, but also sonically. There’s things about “Ocean Machine” that at the time I was doing it, these big suspended chords and the echo and all that sort of stuff. It was so fresh to me that I couldn’t get away with doing a song like “Night” at this point, with that simplicity of those sorts of chords, without it sounding like a second-rate version of itself. I had put so much effort into trying to get the album out. It was such an arm-wrestle that I think there’s an energy in there that is really special.
LTW: If there was a silver lining to the toil and tribulations, it got your independent career kick-started with Hevy Devy Records, right?
DT: Without “Ocean Machine” I would not be where I am now. I had signed (to a record label) with Strapping Young Lad and I was working on “Ocean Machine” in the background, because no-one had heard it. I talked to Century Media and I said, “Look. I am happy to sign under the one condition that I am able to non-exclusive.” They agreed, and as a result of that I was able to establish Hevy Devy Records and get a distribution deal in Japan for “Ocean Machine”. Then from that point on everything other than Strapping… “Ocean Machine” (1997), “Infinity” (1998), “Terria” (2001)… even the present stuff, I have been able to license to labels as a subsidiary of my own record label. That allowed me a certain amount of financial freedom when it comes to the creation of the records and a lot of creative freedom. The root of what I do has been the same since the beginning, and probably will be down ’til the last day of my miserable existence (laughs). It is changing in the way that it articulates itself sonically and emotionally. The root of what I do has always been rooted in the same thing. It is hard for me to define what that thing is.
LTW: Your autobiographical book “Only Half There” is incredibly candid about everything. It is very funny in places, with genuine darkness before bringing things up-to-date in a positive tone. Was it tough to open up like that in a different medium? Without a guitar in hand?
DT: In some ways it was cathartic. To be forced to face things and sort of purge yourself of them. It was good for me to let go of some of that. I haven’t talked to many people about it (the book). I don’t really know what people think about it. I can only hope that it helps. I think a lot of it comes down to, ultimately I did it from a place of honesty. I did it from a place of trying to be of service to people, perhaps by revealing things that potentially make me feel vulnerable, and set a precedent for others to maybe do the same. Because ultimately the way that I create is rooted in allowing myself to be vulnerable, and that’s a strength. It’s hard to cultivate, so perhaps by doing it the way that I did it was a step in the right direction for me creatively. It was very good for me.
LTW: Che Aimee Dorval, who featured on “Ki” (2009), also helped out on “Transcendence”. She has been dropping hints about a follow-up to “Casualties of Cool” (2014). Are you two planning something?
DT: We have established more of a relationship, because we did that first record without really knowing each other. We have got to know each other since then, and we have a lot of common ground in a lot of ways. We have become friends. So we have been trying to figure out what is that we say together. As a result of that we have got some ideas floating around but it’s still kind of nebulous as what it is we represent together in my mind (laughs). We are just spending time learning about each other musically. We’ve got some shows coming up. From that point on I think it will start to move effortlessly. Che is now a good friend and she is an excellent musician. We are really good together, so I think it (a new record) will be good, but it will probably take a long time. It will be excellent.
LTW: What about the symphonic project, “Moth”, which reportedly includes content of an appendage-related nature…?
DT: The symphony is being worked on. What it is about, what the project will entail I will reveal when I am sort of able to articulate it more! (laughs) At this point I am working on assembling the people that will be involved with it. The quality of them is really high and it is beginning to make sense. It’s going to be, I guess, my version of “The Phantom of the Opera” in some way. It certainly won’t be… (long pause) for children! (laughs)
The book “Only Half There” is available here.
Casualties of Cool is online here.
Devin Townsend Project UK & Ireland Tour 2017
Sun 12/3 Bristol Colston Hall
Mon 13/3 Manchester Academy
Tue 14/3 Glasgow Barrowlands
Thu 16/3 Birmingham Institute
Fri 17/3 London Hammersmith Apollo – “Ocean Machine” 20th anniversary show
Sat 18/3 Nottingham Rock City
Tue 13/6 Belfast Limelight
Wed 14/6 Dublin Academy
Full ticket details for all dates, some including VIP packages, are available here