Strapping Young Lad Are All Rocked Out
Making 20 albums in ten years would tax any artist’s capabilities. But Devin Townsend has achieved that milestone, and his output is almost never "mellow,” from the crushing, atmospheric anthems of his eponymous solo band to the brain-bashing, foot-flailing industrial metal of Strapping Young Lad. It’s no wonder the 34-year-old Vancouver singer-instrumentalist recently announced he’d take an extended break from the music biz after SYL finishes supporting their fifth studio album, The New Black, on this year’s Ozzfest tour. His last solo release, Synchestra, dropped in January.
"I’m ready for a break, and my contract [with Century Media] is finished,” says Townsend from his hotel in Portsmouth, England. "I did my best to make sure that each record was as good as it could be.”
The exhaustion in Townsend’s voice is palpable. Battling a cold, he sounds like he’s just gone through Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon or a triple overtime game in the Stanley Cup finals. But the joy of approaching the finish line isn’t foremost in his mind.
Getting fellow Vancouverite Bif Naked and shock rocker Oderus Urungus of GWAR to provide guest vocals was one highlight of making The New Black for Townsend. Yet the former singer for Steve Vai isn’t as excited about the artists he’ll perform alongside on Ozzfest: "If Meshuggah or Opeth were on, I’d really dig that. But they’re not. It’s just a bunch of bands. I know there are a lot of multi-word band names with calligraphy, and a lot of brightly coloured sleeve tattoos. To me, this is another gig. I’m going to do my thing, but you definitely won’t see me parading around afterwards trying to cash in on it.”
That jaded attitude colours The New Black, the third SYL studio record in the last four years. Stadium-sized chants of "SYL!” toward the end of "Decimator” are clearly ironic, as are the "Whoa yeah! Hell yeah!” refrains in "You Suck.”
"The stuff is really accessible, but underneath I think it’s the same old chaotic disaster that Strapping’s always been,” says Townsend. "Strapping just started as a pet project of mine. I had no aspirations in terms of it doing anything at all. Lyrics on the early records even alluded to that. But here we are now, doing big festivals, and part of me is just like, ‘Okay, here’s a record. There you go. Fill your boots.’ It’s still Strapping underneath, but on the surface it’s like, ‘Everybody sing along!’ So before I lose faith in music completely, I’ve got to stand back for a while.”
"Hevy Devy” has long played the consummate metalhead, with his famous "skullet” (bald on top, party in the back) and crazed facial expressions. Ever since the 1995 release of SYL’s debut, Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing (reissued in June), he’s never relinquished his outsider status, taking an art-first approach that’s earned him the credibility to produce contemporary metal acts like Soilwork, Lamb of God and Darkest Hour.
But right now, the gifted workaholic is ambivalent about the hyper-commercialised industry he works in. "It allows people who’ve sold 30,000 or 40,000 records to pretend they’re rock stars and walk around all puffy-chested with their endorsements and shit, right?”
That said, Townsend still takes pride in the new SYL disc, featuring his profane rants about society and music, along with the chunky chords of guitarist Jed Simon and bassist Byron Stroud and the frenetically proficient drumming of Gene Hoglan (ex-Death and Dark Angel). Yet unlike a typical artist in promo mode, he adds unprompted that SYL’s sophomore effort, 1997’s City, "is the real Strapping record. That’s the ultimate one out of all of them.”
With his wife/manager Tracy giving birth to the couple’s first child in October, Townsend will spend more time close to home, and he’s looking forward to dialing down the pressure to create: "It’s one thing to be really prolific if you’re a dude with a studio apartment who lives by himself and has no friends. But I’m married and I have close family and lots of friends, and yet I’ve had no time to do anything but create for the last ten years.”
Whether he’s changing diapers, working in a warehouse, drinking Coronas on the beach, listening to everything from Squarepusher to West Side Story, or occasionally producing other artists, this will be the Canadian metal icon’s chance to decompress.
"I’m sick of me being my main focus,” he says. "My career has been just so based around looking at my ugly face. As a singer, you get a lot of attention, and as I get older, I think I’m becoming a little more private and starting to resent it.”
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