Devin Townsend Discusses His Past, Present and Future
Band Photo: Strapping Young Lad (?)
Devin Townsend is regarded as one of the most prolific artists in music today. Having just released two albums simultaneously before embarking on a tour with Children of Bodom without any signs of stopping, Devin manages to keep his gears forever in motion. Metalunderground.com was able to reach Devin before his show at Chicago's House of Blues on July 6th for an exclusive interview.
Matt Dasher: You've had a long collaboration with Gene Hoglan, starting with “City” and then moving on to “Infinity” and “Physicist” up until “The New Black.” Is there any reason why he hasn't been on any of your past five albums?
Devin Townsend: What I'm doing now is not Strapping Young Lad. You know that, right?
Devin: Gene was the drummer for Strapping Young Lad and I think that if I used Gene for any of the more recent stuff, the first thing that I would have to answer in interviews is, “When is the reunion?” The way that I write music has never been, “Let me write a bunch of Strapping music and see where it takes me.” My current frame of mind dictate where I'm at. When I was in my mid 20’s, Strapping was very much where I was at. Then when I grew out of that emotionally, I didn't feel the need to do it anymore and moved on to other things. It's been a difficult transition, since a lot of people are confused as to why that would happen. So including Gene Hoglan would have just made it more confusing for people.
Matt: Can you tell me about Ziltoid 2 at all?
Devin: I was planning on doing another Ziltoid record after this, but when I did “Deconstruction,” it is sort of along those lines anyway. So I'm not as inspired to do that type of music right now having just completed it. I'll be doing a TV show with Ziltoid, which will be really cool and that'll allow me to work with the character a bit more. As far as making complicated heavy music, I don’t think that's going to be my next move at all honestly.
Matt: Then what's next? I remember a few years ago that you said that you were recording a symphony. Will there be a Strapping Young Lad reunion, another experimental electronic album like “Devlab” or will it be something totally different?
Devin: There won't be a Strapping Young Lad reunion. The symphonic record is what I just did with “Deconstruction,” and in terms of what I'll be doing next, I've got a lot of options, but I'm just taking it slow at this point. I'm not going to rush into anything, so we'll see where it leads me. There’s no decision yet.
Matt: With as many different genres of music as you've done, how would you describe your core fans?
Devin: Kind of like me, kind of nerdy and above average intelligence, but not super intelligent, but not super dumb. Somewhere in there. Blue collar. There’s people on both extremes, but the only thing I can think is that the people why relate to the stuff is because they relate to what I write about. I'm 39 years old and kind of nerdy and awkward. I like heavy music and I like quiet music. So I assume that the audience is similar to that to be honest.
Matt: I liked the guests on “Deconstruction.” Is there any chance that you'll do a big collaborative effort again?
Devin: The same reason why I'm definitely not doing Strapping Young Lad is because I definitely follow where it takes me in a certain way. At a certain point, I felt like “Deconstruction” was where everything was pointing to. Now that that's finished, there’s no real burning need to do it again, you know. In terms of collaborative efforts, the parts were very small. It was more of a texture than a feature and I don't really work well with others to begin with. In the future, if I do a collaboration, it’ll be something that's right at the time, but there’s nothing on the horizon yet.
Matt: “Deconstruction” was a lot heavier than your past two albums. Is there a chance that heavier songs like “Detox,” “Depthcharge,” “Shitstorm” or “Namaste” will make your setlist on any upcoming tours?
Devin: “Detox,” you know is a Strapping Young Lad song?
Devin: I'm not doing Strapping Young Lad anymore, so no for “Detox.” “Depth Charge” and the others, perhaps, but not any Strapping Young Lad stuff.
Matt: Now that Strapping Young Lad broke up, is it good to release whatever kind of music you make on one label just under the name Devin Townsend instead of releasing one album and then having Century Media being all, “This is more prog than metal, it's not a Strapping Young Lad album,” or Inside Out saying, “this too heavy, but not prog enough?” Does it feel good to have that kind of creative freedom where you're only working under one name on one label?
Devin: Totally. I like heavy music. I do. How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?
Devin: So I'm 39 now. That's a 16 year difference. I found after a certain period of time that it wasn’t in my interest anymore. Life's short right, so I don’t like to have to do anything. When I was 23 is when I wrote the first Strapping Young Lad record and that really was important to me because like you say, the record companies insisted on it being a certain way. Now, yeah man, I'm really happy that I can do whatever I want. As a creative person, it’s really rewarding to be able to do that.
Matt: What's your favorite album that you've done, solo or SYL?
Devin: There's elements of all of them. If I was to say what my favorite Strapping record is, it would be “City.” If I was to say what my favorite solo record is, in terms of a technical achievement, I'd say “Deconstruction” is the most impressive, that or “Infinity,” but over all the records, my favorite thing I think I've done is “Ghost.”
Matt: How has giving up drinking affected you as an artist?
Devin: Drinking was one thing, but it was more marijuana for me. I think drinking is obviously a poison and it's not good to drive drunk, but it psychologically wasn’t as profoundly impactful on my music as smoking marijuana for me. It led me to places in music that I wasn’t comfortable with, so getting rid of the marijuana I think really allowed me to focus on the things that I want to do and reject the things that I didn’t want to do. The parties aren't as fun anymore, but my mind is definitely clearer. I'm happy and that's something that I've wanted for a long time.
Matt: Has working as a producer as your day job given you more financial or artistic freedom?
Devin: I don’t have financial freedom yet, so I'm struggling still. What I do is odd. It's not Nickelback or Britney Spears or the type of music that makes a lot of money, right? So it's always been a struggle financially for me. I'm not starving, but there’s no relaxing when it comes to making money. Producing I did for a while, but I found there was very little money in that. The bands that came to me usually had no money and I worked more hours than I probably should have on their projects. I actually lost money by producing, but what I learned from producing was how to make my music sound the way I want it to sound. So if you look at it from that point of view, it's an important step for me. But as far as creative/financial freedom, it's all a struggle; there’s no freedom at all. So you have to carve out your freedom when you have the chance and when you do that, something else suffers. It's a big juggling act up until this point.
Matt: With all the constant touring, recording and producing, how do you avoid burnout? The last time you mentioned a hiatus was after you released Ziltoid and a year later you started recording music.
Devin: It's a good question. How do I avoid burnout? I think I'm burned out and I've been for many years, but when I tried to stop writing music, it just didn't work. It think music for me is more of a need to express myself rather than, “Well it's time to make another record.” I think a band like Megadeth or Slayer says, “Well now it's time for a new Megadeth record, let's go for it.” For me, it's where if I don't write, then I feel unfulfilled. It's a job, but it's also a hobby. So when I decided to stop for a while, it just didn’t work. It was like stopping breathing or something.
My need to create came out in counter-productive way or I'd be unsatisfied in things that I usually take satisfaction in. So what I needed to step away from was not so much music as much as the circus that surrounds it, like being on tour. Because really, I'd say that 8% of my time is spent making music and the other 92% is spent traveling and dealing with problems. Trying to keep a band together, trying to keep a relationship together, trying to make sure that everything gets sent to Finland at the right time, so that's really what the job is about. Playing music is wonderful and I love playing music, but it's really a small percentage of what I do.
Matt: I loved the Rammstein remix that you did. Please tell me you'll do something like that again.
Devin: They sent an open invitation to a bunch of people. They gave everyone a bunch of files and were going to choose three of the remixes. So many of the other people were remix artists. I thought to myself that it's a cool opportunity and I like Rammstein and all that, but then I was nervous, since I didn't want to fuck anything up. So I didn’t do anything. So what I did was the first thing that comes into my head. The first thing that came into my head was a beer party, then I adding farting and all that stuff over it. So I thought to myself, “If they don’t like it, what's the worst that can happen?” But then they liked it, which reinforced what I already thought, which was that they had a decent sense of humor about themselves. They're a cool band, man.
Matt: Do all your comparisons to Frank Zappa prevent you from establishing yourself as you own man?
Devin: The only problem that I have with the comparison to Zappa is that Zappa was so much more technically and intellectually superior than I am. What I do is really emotionally charged and I don't know what I'm doing. I don’t know theory. I don't know how or why I do what I do. So when I listen to Frank Zappa, he just had such control over the theoretical elements of what he does that I don't compare at all. I was never interested in Frank Zappa's music. It never moved me. It was so accessible in a way that it didn’t have that sense of danger that I related to. I like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and things like that, so I can relate to how he did things and his unwillingness to compromise. It's apples to oranges, but if people want to do that, then it's so flattering. But in my own mind I don't think we compare.
Matt: What do you think about the riots in your hometown?
Devin: I think that if a city has got such a sense of entitlement over a stupid game ,then you really need to go to Libya for a while, you know that I mean? I'm not a sports fan. I play music. I like English and drama. In school, I had big feet and couldn't play basketball. So when you take a country like Canada, which has a good economy and there's not a lot of people there and it's a beautiful place and we have nothing to do, but riot over a hockey game.
Matt: Do you ever plan on growing the skullet back?
Devin: To be honest, what I was doing was what I liked. The skullet looked cool on stage and people liked it, but I got to an age where I have to do something for me and I asked myself, “Do I like it?” The answer was no. It smelled disgusting, it hurts, it's like everything in my world smells like sweaty head. I decided I didn’t like it, so I cut it off. But I put it on the new Ziltoid puppet. I think the most important thing I'm doing with the Devin Townsend Project, I had to do. I spent a lot of years making music for other people. Like Strapping was made for the band or other people or a part of me that I grew out of. So cutting the hair was kind of symbolic for me. Regardless of whether or not people liked the fact that I'm cutting it, I did it since I had to do it for myself.
Matt: I know what you mean. I had hair half way down my back a year ago and every morning where I woke up, it would hurt, since when I woke up. I'd end up pulling on it with my back.
Devin: I think you've just got to be true with you. You can do whatever you want, but I think that before you do it, you've got to analyze why you're going to do it. You need to go down to the root of it and you realize that long hair is just impractical.
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