Devin Townsend Talks About ‘Retinal Circus’

By Andrew Bansal

On October 27 2012, Devin Townsend played the grandest show of his illustrious career at the Roundhouse Tapes in London, a show christened ‘Retinal Circus’, a show that presented the biggest musical exhibition anyone has ever seen from Devin Townsend. For all of his fans who weren’t in London, this show will be released as a live CD/DVD package on October 29th via InsideOut Music. It’s always a pleasure talking to Devin, and it’s fair to say that he’s my favorite musician when it comes to doing interviews. Earlier today on August 23rd 2013, I spoke to him at length about all things Retinal Circus, and as always, he was more than willing to open up and discuss anything and everything I threw at him. Read the conversation below and look our for ‘Retinal Circus’ as it hits a store near you soon!

It’s great to talk to you again. The last time we did an interview, it was September of last year and at the time you were telling me about this ‘Retinal Circus’ show that you were going to do soon after. Here we are almost a year later, and you’re soon releasing a DVD of that show. First of all, for you what was that experience like, doing that show in London?

It was basically every emotion sort of wrapped up into one. Being perfectly honest, overall it was a really good experience but it was fraught with technical hurdles and I didn’t actually recognize what we had done until I started editing it. In hindsight, it’s great but at that time it was just a lot of stress.

What kind of technical problems did you face?

Well, the ideas that I typically have for Retinal Circus or Ziltoid or any number of projects that I do are usually on such a scope that there’s no feasible way you can do it with the amount of money and time that we usually have. Retinal was an extreme version of that. There were a 100 people in our performing group, we had a day-and-a-half worth of rehearsal, and overall, we did achieve what I had hoped to achieve from the show, but to get it to that point it was chaos. You can imagine when there are a 100 people including circus performers, choir members and people that had no connection to what I’ve done or to the music itself. They had to become familiar with the music and being on our stage, and all these things that went into this 3-hour performance. We had props, we were playing songs we’d never played before, and I think there were 50 or 60 wireless units going. Something as simple as trying to find the frequencies for the wireless units became a challenge when we had to go and do it amidst the chaos of pulling off something that was so bizarre. For me on a personal level, narcissistic to the point of nausea, it was a heck of a thing! But ultimately, for me it was a success. I tend to be hyper-aware of what I do and what it is that I project into the audience, I real awkward sort of quasi-nerdy thing. So by doing Retinal which was so awkward and so nerdy, it allowed me to kind of liberate that. It’s what people are going to say now, like, ‘Ok, you’re an awkward and nerdy performer!’ And I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, of course! Look at this.’ I’m not only doing a show that’s incredibly awkward and nerdy, but we put flames on it and a pop-up book in the release. I mean, fuck you, right?

Yeah, pretty much! I do agree and I think overall it’s a success, because I’ve been talking to friends that have seen YouTube versions of the whole performance and some of them even told me that it’s the best rock opera they’ve ever seen. Based on that, I’d like to ask you as to what rock concerts are the best opera-type things you’ve seen. What do you see as the ‘gold standard’ for rock bands?

I think it’s an interesting question because it implies something that I really am interested in. And for sure, when I was a kid I loved Phantom Of The Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Paint Your Wagon type thing that was going on in the 70s. But if I try to watch any of that now, I’d just find it really, really uncomfortable, either thematically or lyrically or what have you. It made a lot of sense to me as a kid because it was a way to express emotions really bluntly. All those rock operas are broad strokes of emotion. If you want to see happy, you got 15 people dancing in the streets with these big stupid rings on their faces. There you go, that’s happy! I was intrigued by it rather than obsessed by it. It definitely taught me a lot about music and tonality. But now, all that stuff seems so meat loaf, including what I do. But again, I needed to make that statement. I needed to get past that hurdle I had in my mind of constantly putting the kabash on certain ideas that I had, because it was too dramatic or too theatrical. So I was not going to have any more of this, forget it. It’s a big part of what I do, so here it is! As far as the gold standard for rock operas or something, I wouldn’t even know where to start, man. I never watch that sort of thing, anymore at least.

That’s interesting. Talking of YouTube clips, what’s your opinion on that? This DVD package is coming out in late October of this year but those clips have been around for a while, ever since you did that show. Did that bother you?

There’s two things about that. First off, they asked me if I wanted to stream it, and my first thought was, no! Because I have no control over the mix and it’s such complicated mixing that goes into the music, it’s a matter of one or two dB for a part to work or speak or absolutely just be a jumble. When I finally did hear the YouTube clips it sounded so bad that I watched literally a minute of it and couldn’t continue. So in a sense, it was embarrassing but in another sense it was really a good way for me to conquer that fear of being seen as imperfect in something that I want to be perfect with. So yeah sure, the YouTube clips sound dreadful but it gave me a real push to make sure that the mixing that I did fixed all of that, and at least fixed how people perceive the experience. If you see the show, there are people dancing around in gorilla outfits and through a horrible sounding mix it’s going to come across as one thing. But to actually see those YouTube clips, the minute I did that I was like ,I’ve got to focus on making this mix really good! I’ve got to make the editing of the visuals really, really good so people can have the experience that I hoped to provide. By being forced to have those YouTube clips out in the open, it gave me a different perspective on it.

As you just said, there were so many layers in the sound of that show, and so much going on. In terms of the mix, do you think you’ve been able to successfully capture that on the final product that is the CD and the DVD?

I’m such a perfectionist, but nothing I ever do is perfect. So I’m constantly feeling profoundly uncomfortable as a result because it’s a strange thing. I want things to be perfect, perfect, perfect. But nothing I’ve ever done has turned out that way. So being an imperfect perfectionist just provides me with as much frustration as I can eat. The Retinal Circus thing is imperfect technically, but in terms of the experience that I want people to get from the show, the songs speak well enough to provide that.

You also had a lot of special guests. I think Steve Vai narrated the whole event, and stuff like that. Could you talk about that a little bit, just for people who’re not aware of what to expect from this DVD in terms of guest musicians?

The whole Retinal Circus show is meant to be several things and one of the few things is, it’s a way for me to summarize 20 years of doing this professionally. During that 20-year period there were a lot of people that were pivotal in my life and in my music, between Strapping Young Lad, Steve Vai, Ocean Machine, Infinity, etc etc. Typically, people either in media or the label or what have you, had a hard time finding ways to sell what I do because they can’t sell it to people as one thing or another. So for the Retinal Circus I tried to include all of it in one place, wrap it up and try to include as many people from the past that I had worked with as I thought would be appropriate. And so, Steve Vai obviously is where I started in music and he was kind enough to narrate it. Then I had Anneke, and then I asked Jed from Strapping Young Lad to come up. It was important for me to do Strapping Young Lad in this, because there’s typically the notion that I’m ashamed of it or afraid of it. Absolutely not! Strapping Young Lad is as much me as Ghost or Ziltoid. It was just then. So I included the SYL in order to make it as respectful as I could to the legacy of that band. Jed was the first member of Strapping before Gene and Byron, and it was a great experience for me to reconnect with him.

Right, but after you did that, I think a lot of rumors started flying around and media outlets started asking you about a full reunion. That must have been kind of hard for you to deal with, right?

It’s not hard to deal with, but i think the only thing about talking to media that’s hard for me to deal with is me just being confused as to why people become obsessed by it. I truly don’t understand. But in the way I’ve understood it is, people have a connection to a particular period of their life that music played an important part in, and they believe that by bands reuniting, it’s going to in some ways provide them with that period of their life or that experience again. But it just doesn’t work that way. It really doesn’t! It’s been proven time and time again by bands that try and come out to reunite and rekindle those sorts of things. I’ve got no interest in it. And not only do I not have any interest, but the more people ask me, the less I want to do it. The surest way for me to not do something is for someone to try and force me to. So the more talk that people babble on about in terms of reunion and all that stuff, it just makes me laugh! Oh my God, really? Is that where you’re at with it? For me, people can talk as much as they want, but I do what I want and that’s the bottom line.

Yeah, exactly. Would you say that this whole Retinal Circus show was absolutely a one-time thing for the Devin Townsend Project and that it will never be done again in the same way?

I hope so. I did an interview yesterday about Retinal and they asked me if I would do it annually. My thought is, Retinal Circus for me is a great way to solve a bunch of things in my mind about my musical process and all that crap I always talk about. But really, it comes across as me being in the wrong frame of mind with this completely chaotic grade-nine high school play (laughs). I think it’s great, I think it’s wonderful but if someone wanted me to do an opera or a play or a musical, man, I would love to have the opportunity, the money and the resources to do it properly and make Retinal Circus look like a high school musical in comparison. So, I would much rather have somebody ask me to do a musical, to tell me this is what it’s going to take, this is the music, and this has to be done properly, as opposed to me redoing this sort of ‘scrappy band of miscreants’ vibe that Retinal Circus was. The thing that’s a success about this Retinal thing is that we pulled it off! There’s no reasonable assumption that we would be able to, but we did and I think that’s a success unto itself. But I’ll tell you that if somebody asked me to do a musical, it would be much different.

Besides the CD and DVD, is this thing also coming out on Blu-Ray? People abreast with modern technology these days have been kind of embracing that format a lot more than DVDs, I think.

Yeah, Blu-Ray is definitely one thing we insisted on. There’s a number of formats. I’ve been pretty vocal with how I feel about downloading, but ultimately I make music because I want people to hear it. If you’ve got money that you’re willing to contribute to what I do, there’s a ton of different versions that we’ll be putting out for this release. We’ve got just the CD, just the DVD, just the Blu-Ray, Blu-Ray and CD, Blu-Ray special edition, Blu-Ray uber edition, and every level that you could want in terms of how much it costs is hopefully being made available. But, you can get it elsewhere as well. You can download it or watch it on YouTube. I don’t care. I would like to be able to keep doing this and that obviously requires money, but my view on it is, I’m just so proud to have been able to do it and I’m so happy that people allow me to do it after so many years of fucking around, that we went out of our way with this to make it as comprehensive as possible. And yeah, Blu-Ray is a big part of that. It actually looks great! I’d never seen a Blu-Ray before, I turned it on and I was like, wow! Look at that skin! You can see everything (laughs).

Right, so obviously I missed your last two US tours that you did with Gojira and Paradise Lost as I wasn’t in the States. But when can we expect to see you back in the United States? Probably early next year?

I don’t know! I have no idea. My world is full of a lot of different projects at this point and I’m happily not touring right now. I’m doing a presentation in Chicago in three days, but in terms of an actual tour, I really have no idea yet.