By Andrew Bansal
One of the last remaining personalities of his kind, at least in the realm of heavy music, Canadian vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Devin Townsend has donned many skins in his career and has painted sonic landscapes with varying colors and textures, whether it was with Steve Vai in the mid ’90s, Strapping Young Lad in the late ’90s and early 2000s, his solo albums, or still is with the Devin Townsend Project and other endeavors like Casualties Of Cool. Now he’s been with his DTP band mates for ten years, and is ready to release the seventh DTP album ‘Transcendence’ on September 2nd 2016 via InsideOut Music. Aside from being an endlessly creative musician and an inimitably dynamic performer, Devin Townsend has also been a great conversationalist whenever he has taken the time to talk to Metal Assault about his music over the past six years. Last Tuesday August 23rd was another enjoyable and insightful chat with him about all things DTP and more, including ‘Transcendence’, the upcoming North American tour, production styles, live shows, farting into microphones, and other subjects. Read the conversation below, get a taste of ‘Transcendence’, and if the next tour is visiting your town, mark the date in your calendar.
Devin, it’s been a couple of years since we last talked, and it’s great to have you back. You’re putting out a new album called ‘Transcendence’ very soon. From what I’ve read, it’s supposedly more of a collaborative effort with the band being involved in the writing process. Is that the biggest change? How did that work out?
Well, I’ve been doing this for so long, and I think DTP is definitely still a part of what I want to do musically, but where I really want to go is a lot different than what keeps the boat afloat. So, for every time I get to do a symphony or something like Casualties Of Cool or Ghost, or Ziltoid, even, it’s good for me to continue doing DTP because there’s an audience for it, the shows are getting bigger and I have a good group of guys. I run out of inspiration. I’ve been doing this sound for so long that there’s a part of me that’s just been over it for a long time. The only way for me to keep myself into it is to find an angle of some sort that I can dig my teeth into. And because I wrote a book recently, this ‘Only Half There’ thing, it forced me to look at the past, the patterns that I had been engaging in and the outcomes of those patterns. There were certain things that I thought needed to change, if I want to progress. One of the things that really could be addressed was the fact that with DTP I really keep it so close to me and make all creative decisions, but these guys have been with me for ten years, man! More than that. To a certain extent, to be able to include people who are talented and friends of mine, just seemed like a healthy step to make, and it resulted in a record that after so many years I’m still able to keep the interest in this style because of that process. So, win-win for us all!
Right, but even though you said you wanted to do it to make a big change, I think if I hadn’t read about it, I probably wouldn’t even have guessed that the whole band has written the album, because it just sounds kind of like the next logical step from what DTP has done. It shows that your bandmates also got used to what you do and what you would expect from them as writers.
Totally! To be fair, I still wrote it, but just the way we put it together was different, in that I would dissect riffs and be able to go through it for a part of the time with the guys and then they would be able to massage it into things that are a lot more in line with their personalities. We did write the track ‘Failure’ together, but the rest of it, a lot of the songs were written just like any other DTP record. But I think, like you say, if you hadn’t been told this you wouldn’t have noticed it is probably a good thing ultimately, because I just wanted it to be a good DTP record, and I think without including the guys in the creative process and the new angle, it just wouldn’t have been a good one. I would have had nothing to write about. So, it has a lot to say about the participation of the guys, and to be fair, they’re good guys, they really are. They’re talented and so respectful of me, my vision and my trip that when they did contribute ideas it wasn’t like here’s something completely out of left field (laughs). It was in line with what we’ve been doing for ten years. It was a great experience.
You released a double DTP album in 2014 and you also put out the Casualties Of Cool project the same year. You also once said that you’ve always had more ideas than time. After so much output that year, did you still have enough ideas to start working on this new album?
Not initially. I wanted to do a symphony, or something I’ve never done before. With DTP, it’s a real identifiable sound and it’s got a real identity in line with albums like ‘Ocean Machine’, ‘Terria’ and all these sorts of things. There’s a part of me that’s just bored of it. So, I didn’t have any ideas straight out of the gate to do this DTP record, I had ideas for these other things that I have going on that are really different. But, the fact that there’s all these big shows being offered and the tours, it’s a good group of guys and I like the music still, I just really had to knuckle down and try and find a way to make it as interesting as it could be, for me. That resulted in a lot of material again. So, it’s a great thing to have happened but also very relieving that there’s still some gas in the tank.
Exactly. This album is about 60 minutes in length. How do you perceive it? Would you call it a collection of tracks or like a single extended piece of music, at least in terms of the way you wrote it?
Everything that I do is essentially just a reflection of the state of mind that I and the people around me involved with it find themselves in. So, in that sense, ‘Transcendence’ is no different, really, than ‘Epicloud’, ‘Addicted’, ‘City’, ‘Ziltoid’ or ‘Ocean Machine’. It’s the same process. I like to say that throughout the years it’s the same face, it’s just presented with different makeup, in a sense. I think to a certain extent, each record has been one thought and I try and make it so that it’s an experience more than anything else. When we put together this one, my thought as always was how is this going to leave the listener. If you still have the patience to get through a record from beginning to end, what is it that you want to ultimately leave your audience feeling? Once that’s defined in my own mind, and each record has that moment when I look back at it, the flow and whether or not it plays as one piece of music, it sort of does it by itself and it’s different every time. With this one, I think it’s more of a collection of songs, I kind of hesitate to say, but by the end of the record, when I was listening to it after the mix was done, I was able to sit back and say, OK, great. The feeling that I want to leave people with, it fills me with it. That’s a feeling that I require right now. So, I hope that it helps, in a sense.
The other thing that’s a big feature of DTP or pretty much anything you’ve done solo is the production style. It’s just kind of so epic, operatic and very multi-layered. That’s become such a signature, but how did you develop that and where did that come from in the first place?
A lot of times people ask my why I redid songs like ‘Truth’, ‘Hyperdrive’ and ‘Kingdom’, and I was also asked recently what are my thoughts when I look back at my past catalog. It’s the same answer, in that it’s never going to be right. I’m a perfectionist who isn’t perfect. So, there’s this constant level of irritation that goes into the fact that it’s never right, and that big multi-layered orchestral thing that has really come into its own on ‘Transcendence’, it’s something that I’ve been trying to get right for 25 years! In my mind at least, it’s not like, here it is again. It’s more like, here I am trying to get it right again. I think if ‘Transcendence’ was to be the last DTP record, not saying that it is, but if it was, I’d be satisfied with the sound that I’ve managed to really hone in on with Nolly (Periphery bassist). From here, as I said earlier in the interview, it would be really nice to do something different, but it’s almost like in order to move on you need to get it right first, in a sense. How did I come across it? I don’t know, it’s always been the vision since I was a kid, that big, epic thing. There have been moments of spiritual significance that I’ve had throughout my life, whether they were naturally or synthetically occurring, or birth or death. Any of those intense emotional experiences have always seemed to me to be epic. In my own way, I guess that’s what I’m trying to represent, those big, bold feelings. So, you just keep trying, keep hitting at the axe hoping that you get a break somewhere along the line.
In the past, you worked with a couple of other bands too in terms of mixing their music. You probably haven’t had time to do any of that recently, but do you ever feel like working for other people instead of on your music?
Dude, I’ve needed to take a picture of a pedal for the past three months and I haven’t had time to do it. It’s embarrassing too. But my days are so full-on, man. From 6:30 AM till 11 at night every day. I did a quick thing for Intronaut recently, but a lot of that was just because I really like the band and I like what they’ve tried to do over the years, and it sort of came to me through a mutual friend. So, that’s something I bend my own rules on, but even at that I spent way too long on it, man. Whatever I do I get obsessed with, so I’ve got to be really careful what I pick, and that’s how I am with production. Towards the end of it, one thing that I realized about myself is, I absorb people’s energy. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing. As a result of that, if I surround myself with energy that’s positive or even therapeutic in some ways because people are different than me but they are still good people and it forces me out of my comfort zone. These are things that are good for me, but the problem with production is you can never really choose the people you spent mass amounts of time with. There are certain productions I did where it was like, I don’t like this, or I don’t like spending time with this dude, or this, that and the other thing, and I can’t let it go. At the end of the day it’s not like I just shut the door and go home, put on some other song and play with my kid. The songs are in my head, the ideas are in my head, and I just get obsessed with things. So, if I was to do production or mixing for bands in the future, they would have to be a very cautious move on my part because, number one I don’t need to do it as much. I can spend that time making my own music happily or going to the beach, even. But if I was to do it, it would have to be something that I can really get behind. So that’s it, I’m not ruling it out but I’ve just got to be more careful than I have been in the past.
Makes perfect sense. We were talking about albums being a single thought, but when you play live with DTP, it’s more of a mix of things to represent the whole project, and from any given album you barely do one or two tracks. What do you feel about performing entire albums? I mean, so many people are doing it nowadays, I think it’s kind of a beaten concept, so to speak, and doesn’t even excite me anymore. People just do it for the sake of it.
It’s hard to be excited about anything, really. You and I both when we get into these things, we’re excited, thrilled, and talking to people is just like a big deal. But the longer you do it, you’re like, yeah that guy is famous but he’s an asshole (laughs). Or, this concept that seemed so thrilling to me when I was 15, like this one album, ‘Gretchen Goes To Nebraska’ (King’s X), ‘Nothing’s Shocking’ (Jane’s Addiction) or whatever my album was at that time, to hear it now I’m like, I don’t even have time to take a picture of a pedal (laughs). When it comes to play live, dude, I’ve got almost 30 records and this upcoming tour with BTBAM and Fallujah, I’ll get between 70 and 90 minutes to fit in 30 hours worth of material. So, to make it work, I think it’s a real laborious task, and we’ve also been spending a lot of time for this tour to come up with a great set list. You have to take into consideration that the first song is hard to mix because the sound person is always going to have to get used to the room over the first song, so you don’t want to start with a really complicated song but you also don’t want to have no energy. Then you have to think about how much of the new record, how much of the old stuff, how much fun and how much crushing stuff. When it comes to a full record, we’ve been talking about doing ‘Ocean Machine’, and I can ‘Terria’ or any of these records. It’s all work, ultimately. If it’s something that people want, I usually know about it and then I consider it.
Right, you mentioned that upcoming tour. You said you’ll have around 70 minutes because you’re co-headlining with BTBAM and Fallujah is the opening act. You always end up on really attractive lineups, whether by design or by coincidence. This is going to be another one of those, where people can just enjoy the entire show, really.
That’s it, and it’s half by coincidence and half by design. We get offered all kinds of packages and I get to look through them and choose them. I know that BTBAM is a great band and great guys too. We toured with them years ago, and they’re good guys to be with. I mean, you’re spending a bunch of time with people. I don’t know the Fallujah guys but I really do like the band. I got asked to do some work with them on their last record but I just wasn’t in the frame of mind where I wanted to do that yet. But they’re great, what they’re doing is really forward-thinking and includes a lot of the death angles that I really like, still. We did a tour with Periphery and Shining, which was another good one. It’s great as an audience member to go to a show and see three really distinct things that have an identity that’s strong. To go see three black metal bands or death metal bands, even though all three of them might be good, after a while it’s a blur, you know. So, my thought is, if you’re going to go out and wanting to have an experience, it’d be nice to keep it varied.
You’re not doing a super-long set on this tour and in the past, even in your own headline shows I don’t think you ever did too long of a set, which I think is a good thing. You kind of want to leave the audience wanting more instead of leaving early.
We do an hour-and-a-half. I don’t know many people that do more than that, unless it’s like Bruce Springsteen, right? A 90-minute set seems to be pretty typical, and a lot of the times it’s not my decision. It’s just imposed that we get between 75 and 90 minutes and that’s it, and then it’s curfew. In order for all the bands to get their sets in, you do what you’re told. Do other bands do more than an hour-and-a-half?
Yeah, I guess it depends on what band it is. Older bands sometimes do longer sets and people don’t usually last the whole show. Half the venue is empty during the encore.
Oh, I’m with you. I remember going to Slayer at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver a few years ago and I was done like halfway through it! I was like, it sounds cool, it’s great, it’s Slayer, but it’s just loud, there’s ton of people, some asshole is fucking running around and dumping beer on your girl or whatever. At a lot of these shows the sound is so bad, and that’s the thing. I’m not even talking about Slayer, I’m just talking in general. It’s so hard to keep sound consistent. I wince at some of the places that we have to play, with all this orchestral stuff I’ve got going on in the music, and you’re playing in what is essentially an oil drum in the middle of Nebraska and you’re telling your sound man, “Well, good luck!” (laughs) But I think to a certain extent what really plays into it at that point is you’re trying to entertain people. A lot of it is just performance, and if people are spending money on your show you don’t want to phone it in. You want to give people something really cool to see. I guess that’s my goal. I want people to come out of the show and think that it was a great show, all three bands were killer, they were entertained and everybody gave it their all.
As you said, it’s a lot about entertainment and you’re definitely a dynamic personality on stage. Compared to that, when you’re recording an album it’s like nobody is really watching you except for the people you’re working with. Is that sometimes harder or more challenging? You’re working on something that everybody would hear, but at that moment nobody is hearing it.
Oh, it’s way better for me. Dude, I’m so insecure. My whole trip as a musician and the job it involves on the internet, I look at myself all day and it sucks (laughs). It’s not like I’m such a narcissist that I love looking at photos or videos of myself, hearing myself speak or reading my words. All I do that stuff for is so I can continue to make music. My best moments are when I’m creating. Performance is something where I’m a bit of a ham and I try and have some fun. It’s not I wanted to do. It’s not like I wanted to perform. I wanted to make music. So, a lot of the things that have come along with it, over time you find things that work. Some days you go on stage and your mind is just not in it. There’s problems at home, there are interpersonal problems in the band, the gear is screwy or the room sounds like shit or whatever. But in that situation I think you have a choice as a professional to just stare at your feet and be miserable the whole night or just try and make the best of it. Ultimately, that combination of things between trying to make the best of it and trying to get over your insecurities often just creates the character that you end up portraying in some ways. To be perfectly honest, there’s times when I look at my own trip and think, oh my God it’s so fucking embarrassing. I can’t believe that there’s puppets and this dorky dude jumping around on stage and all this other stuff. But a lot of the times I see it and it’s like, there it is, that’s great! I’m just able to play my music and it’s natural. But that’s every day. Every day is a new day and you’ve got to just roll with it. Some days you win, some days you lose.
A lot of what you do is on stage, as you said, you’re a bit of a ham. I remember the show you did a few years ago at the Key Club in West Hollywood where you kind of farted into the microphone …
I “kind of” farted??
Well, you did fart into the microphone. At first people thought it was sample or something, so even I wasn’t really sure.
Hey man, I’m legit. I don’t phone this stuff in. You know it’s funny too, the amount of people that become critical of who you are, that’s a very interesting aspect of being a public person, even in this small world of prog metal where you sell a couple of thousand records if you’re lucky and play some shows here and there. I get so much attention for whatever reason, because of the internet and sites that promote this stuff. Thank God these sites promote this stuff because it allows us to keep making music which is my ultimate goal, right? But you’ve just got to be who you are, and I think that I’m suspicious of bands who suppress their true natures just to fit into some sort of click or mould. If you legitimately don’t like Mixed Martial Arts yet you claim that you do for some sort of scene points or whatever, I just don’t think you’re being true to yourself. If I feel like cutting a fart, and I do, it’s not because I’m trying to be provocative, it’s just because I don’t care and I think it’s funny. It’s not anything more than that. And it’s interesting how people end up having opinions on you and there’s judgements on what you do right or wrong, and this record versus the last one. But ultimately, I spend months out of the year on tour, I record constantly and I do interviews. I’ve been doing interviews for 25 years in every conceivable frame of mind. At some point I made a decision to myself like you know what, you’re going to be viewed negatively no matter what you do, so you might as well just be yourself, but just try to be cognizant of your words and own up to it if you do something stupid. Like, the other way for example, because I’m on the interview cycle, I’d done an interview somewhere in the UK or Europe, and we were talking about drugs. I said, oh yeah I remember the first time I took mushrooms I felt like God. It was just an off-the-cuff comment, but I woke up a week later and I saw that there’s like ten websites that had printed this: “Devin Townsend took mushrooms and thought he was God”. My first thought was, how that comes across is just so cheesy, but at the same time how I said it is just part of an off-the-cuff statement. But my reaction to seeing this stuff is not like, how dare these sites print that stuff? Let’s just be fair, I said it! More so now, I’ve got to be prepared. It’s a fine line between being who you are, being honest with what it is that you want to do or not want to do, whether or not you’re willing to take the repercussions when somebody is making you look like an idiot for it, and balancing what with watch what you say because you’re going to have to live with it. You can’t just have ‘honesty tourettes’ and just be like, hey this is how I feel so here’s a bunch of mean bullshit. It’s a fine line, man. We’re in a different age now and to a certain extent I really appreciate it because it forces everybody to be accountable for themselves. As embarrassing as it can be, it teaches me to watch myself in a lot of ways that are probably helpful. But yes, I farted in the mic and I thought it was funny.
It was, and the question I was basically getting to, is everything you do on stage just spontaneous or are there some things you plan prior to the show?
Oh dude, no way. It’d be funny thinking about a week in advance that when we get to the Key Club I’ve got to make sure that when the time comes, I’ve got to blow a fart into the mic. It’s got to be a good one, it’s got to have certain timber and certain length. No man, I was just on stage and I had a fart and it was funny. I think a lot of it is just that. Any time I’ve tried to pre-meditate anything other than music and why it would go to a chorus versus a verse in a part or whatever, it loses the whole connection to spontaneity that I think is the root of music. That spontaneity is something that I cherish. That’s the reason I didn’t do Strapping Young Lad for my whole career, or play with Steve Vai forever. It changes because I’m just following it where it goes, and that’s a big part of my trip.
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Devin Townsend Project North American tour dates with Between The Buried And Me & Fallujah:
09/02/2016 – Kelowna, BC @ Level Nightclub (Hell Raiser Fest) %
09/03/2016 – Calgary, AB @ The Gateway %
09/04/2016 – Edmonton, AB @ Starlite Room %
09/06/2016 – Winnipeg, MB @ Pyramid Cabaret %
09/09/2016 – Nashville, TN @ Marathon Music Works
09/10/2016 – Charleston, SC @ Music Farm
09/11/2016 – Orlando, FL @ The Plaza
09/12/2016 – Charlotte, NC @ Amos’ Southend
09/13/2016 – Silver Spring, MD @ The Fillmore Silver Spring
09/15/2016 – Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre Of Living Arts
09/16/2016 – New York, NY @ Playstation Theater
09/17/2016 – Worcester, MA @ The Palladium
09/18/2016 – Montreal, QC @ Virgin Mobile Corona Theatre
09/20/2016 – Toronto, ON @ The Danforth Music Hall
09/21/2016 – Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall
09/22/2016 – Detroit, MI @ St. Andrews Hall
09/23/2016 – Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
09/24/2016 – Grand Rapids, MI @ The Intersection
09/25/2016 – Louisville, KY @ Mercury Ballroom
09/27/2016 – New Orleans, LA @ The Joy Theater
09/29/2016 – Dallas, TX @ Gas Monkey Live
10/05/2016 – San Francisco, CA @ The Regency Ballroom
10/06/2016 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Novo
10/07/2016 – Tempe, AZ @ The Marquee
10/09/2016 – Sacramento, CA @ Ace of Spades
10/12/2016 – Spokane, WA @ Knitting Factory
10/13/2016 – Portland, OR @ Crystal Ballroom
10/14/2016 – Seattle, WA @ Studio Seven
10/15/2016 – Vancouver, BC @ Vogue Theatre
% = No BTBAM