Making his name as the unpredictable and wild mastermind behind Strapping Young Lad and the goofball behind Ziltoid The Omniscient, Devin Townsend is one of the world’s most gifted composers and stunning vocalists.
As prolific as anyone, Devin had released four albums in the last two years and, as he explains below, he is only beginning his career as a solo artist. With music spanning genres from heavy metal, to progressive rock, alternative, industrial, ambient and folk, with more to come, Devin exemplifies artistic freedom and integrity, and he is finding more inspiration from it.
It will surprise none of Devin’s fans that the Canadian is not one to take himself seriously, in spite of his unflinching pursuit of varied and sundry musical exploits. But he is also a contemplative individual with strong convictions about nature, spirituality and family.
Devin is on tour now in support of his latest, and highly anticipated expedition into all that is heavy. The album, Deconstruction, was released earlier this month along with the ambient Ghost as the second half of the Devin Townsend Project. Deconstruction is metal in its most gratuitous form. From the impending and electronic opener, “Praise The Lowered,” to the stream of consciousness climax of “The Mighty Masturbator” and the wind-breaking title track, the album runs the gamut from silly, to melodic, to profane and just plain, face-contortingly heavy in astounding cohesion. And Hevy Devy is the only one who could have pulled it off.
You Tweeted after the first show of this tour saying the audience was kind of 50/50 in their response to your band. Do you still think it’s like that?
I think in the beginning I kind of came into this tour thinking it was going to be a situation where I was going to have to win people over. But, in all honesty, we’ve ended up playing what we usually play and how I usually perform. It’s not a problem anymore. I actually think it’s cool because we stick out on this tour. You know what I mean? In terms of stylistically, we’re definitely the turd in the punch bowl. So, it definitely gives us a bit of extra attention.
Yeah, I was a little surprised to see the bill.
I think the thing about it as well though is because Deconstruction has just been released. I think the goal for me eventually is to do something that’s really theatrical and make sure all the music is played in one place; in an orchestra or choirs or a really sort of theatrical performance, and then the acoustic stuff. Really, in the long run what’s going to lend credence to that is to have each element of what I do valid, and to tour the heavy stuff with a bunch of heavy bands will ultimately test that in front of that sort of an audience. And I think that ultimately makes sense.
Are you just doing Deconstruction?
No, it’s a 40 minutes set but we’re doing a cross-section of music; Ziltoid, Infinity, Addicted and Deconstruction. As is the case with all the tours, there’s so many elements that we have to choose from, it’s difficult to kind of please everybody and still come across as fluid.
I think what we’re doing on this tour—it’s a good set. It’s really a cool forum for us to represent this stuff.
You’ve talked a lot recently about your love of playing bass. Is that a new muse for you?
I’d say about four years now. I mean, I’ve played bass for years. I’ve played it almost on every record I’ve ever done, in some capacity or another. About four years ago—it’s not like I had enough of guitar because I still love the instrument and I still use it, at least up to a few years back, as my primary writing tool—bass began appealing to me when we had a kid.
The idea of support became more of an element in my life. I just really like the instrument; I really like what it represents. I really like the philosophy behind it. I really like what it takes to be a good bass player too, because it’s a frame of mind moreso than any real technique or any real licks or whatever, although that’s important of course. It’s nice for me to have a sideline musically. As a result of having played it, I find that I’ve been writing on it quite a bit. It’s cool; I like it a lot, man.
There’s less attention paid to it in some sense, but in other ways it’s got more control over the band. And after years of being the center of attention, it’s nice to have a sideline instrument that’s role is much more based in support. I find that appealing right now.
How did you develop your singing voice?
I had a good choir teacher in high school, and I’ve always sung throughout my life. I remember when I was about 18 years old, I was working in restaurants and when I was washing dishes, I would go into the cooler and try to scream along with whatever was popular then; Pantera or Soundgarden or Jane’s Addiction or whatever, Faith No More.
When I finally got the opportunity to sing for Steve Vai or even my own projects, it just ended up over time to be something that got to the state where it’s at now. No real secret though, other than just a lot of trial and error.
I really liked your use of the guest vocals on Deconstruction. Had I not gone into it knowing there were guests, I probably wouldn’t have noticed on first listen; everything fit so well together.
I think the whole idea was to make something with texture to it. When I was doing all the vocals myself, I just found that after a while it became kind of tedious with one voice doing all these things that would really benefit from different textures. So, adding the guest vocalists was more about fleshing that out and trying to find folks in my social network that were capable of doing the voices that the songs needed. I knew that for one song I needed a black metal sounding voice, in one song I needed a death metal sounding voice… so I was just about to go through and find people who fit the bill and include them. There was never an intention of them taking over the vocals but there were so many vocals to be done that I didn’t think it would hurt.
Could you explain the lyrics to “Planet Of The Apes” a little?
Well, there’s not really much to explain; it’s pretty stream of conscious stuff. But I would say, if I were to think about it now is that it would definitely have something to do with—I think for years when I was doing heavy music there was all this sense of intimidation that went on with me like, “We better do this because the heavy metal community… whatever… insists on it.” Or the people you’re with insist on it. And for a long time it was very hard for me to say, “But I don’t want to do that.”
And I think that once I had a kid and family and all that kind of stuff, it was easier for me to say, “No, fuck no. Go do it yourself.” I think that extends to a lot of things, like drinking or partying or being an asshole or whatever. Not to say that I’m not an asshole still—but at least not in the context of what I used to be involved with.
I think “Planet Of The Apes” in the beginning is about that and I think that the title refers to the fact that we’re living in a world right now with a planet full of people who continue to do unbelievably stupid things, environmentally or personally or spiritually or whatever. It seems to be the current state of evolution that we’re at, we’re headed towards a brick wall and, what’s the old quote? “Everyone’s in the back seat arguing about who’s going to drive.” Well, we’re headed for a brick wall at 700 mph.
And I’m not afraid of that, I’m not worried about it. I just think it’s kind of humorous that we tend to think we’re so clever with our computers and what have you. But at the root of it what we’re really missing is nature and family and all that shit.
What struck me about the lyrics is your treatment of the idea of God was a lot different than the typical metal treatment of that subject.
Well, I’m not religious. That’s definitely the thing to be clear about. I think there’s a theme throughout Decontruction about trying to reconcile my relationship with what I think is spiritually important with what tends to be forced in this day and age, on both sides of the fence.
I remember when that whole rapture thing came about and it was like, “When you’re left behind, what’s going to happen?” And on the other end, there’s the Satanic thing of “To thine own self be true.” I think both of it is bollocks. I think the connection to the infinite, whatever that is, is a personal thing and it’s a beautiful thing and it’s the only thing that is really important.
I think the idea of Karma, not Karma itself is important. If I were to lean towards anything, it would be more towards a Buddhist way of thinking, but I certainly am not a Buddhist. I think the whole thing on Deconstruction has to do with a frustration of how people use the idea of spirituality and a connection to something beyond us is almost more based about being right than it is about being true. I don’t have much time for it, to be honest.
Now that you’ve completed the four records for the Devin Townsend Project, are you going to take a break from writing or do you already have new albums written?
I’ve written about 20 songs, I guess—maybe a little less. A lot of different styles again. But this time, as opposed to doing a full record thing, I’m going to keep writing and I’m going to wait for the thing to really come to the surface and really wants to inspire me. And in the past all four did that but for a different reason than I’m inspired now.
I’ve written some really commercial sounding of stuff, some really New Age-y stuff, some folky stuff, some really beach sounding music. Nothing heavy though. I think it’s important for me this time to take it a little slower and take everything a little slower, and then eventually it’ll make sense. But yeah, I’ve written a lot.
Are you having more fun onstage now than before?
Yeah, I enjoy it. I mean, having the opportunity to play after quitting drinking and drugs or whatever has given me a much better appreciation of what it takes to do it, and also a much better appreciation of how fortunate we are to be onstage.
So what’s the next step?
I have no idea. I think we’re just going to play these shows and we’ll see what the next step ends up wanting to be. There’s a lot of options. Doing Ziltoid TV, a TV show for the Internet. I’ve been writing lots of music, there’ll be lots of touring and we’ll see what happens.
Will there be a headlining tour soon?
Yeah, in about two months we’ll be doing a headlining run through American and then after that we’ll do some in Canada, and honestly, man, I’ll be touring a lot.
Devin Townsend and his band will be performing at The Best Buy Theater in NYC on July 16 and the Trocadero in Philly on July 17. More info at hevydevy.com.