Devin Townsend is a unique figure in the landscape of Canadian heavy music (and music in general). After beginning his career as Steve Vai's vocalist, Townsend made a name for himself as a powerful force in extreme metal with Strapping Young Lad, while simultaneously putting out more progressive material under the banner of the Devin Townsend Band. After disbanding both projects in 2006, going through major lifestyle changes, and releasing the tongue-in-cheek rock opera Ziltoid The Omniscient, Townsend returned to an ambitious touring and recording schedule in 2009. The music that he has been creating under the new banner of the Devin Townsend Project has been distinctly different from his earlier work. The four-album cycle of Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost was released between 2009 and 2011, each exploring a different aesthetic angle and sensibility that Townsend was interested in, from extremely orchestral and complex heavy metal to spare and emotive acoustic material. His latest album, Epicloud, was released on September 18, 2012 and is the most definitive step towards embracing a pop aesthetic while retaining the muscular drumming, guitar techniques and lush, layered production Townsend is known for. Taken together, the 15 studio albums that Townsend has released over the course of his career form a psycho-geographical autobiography. While on tour with Katatonia, Paradise Lost and Stolen Babies, Townsend took the time to speak with Exclaim! about Epicloud, his composing process, and future plans, including the highly-anticipated follow-up to Ziltoid.
How's the tour going so far?
Good! We're just starting this whole cycle, having just finished Epicloud. It seems like the first illness of the touring cycle has taken effect today [clears his throat]; it's always nice to get it over with quickly. Other than that it's good. We're out with a bunch of bands that we were unfamiliar with before [Katatonia, Paradise Lost and Stolen Babies] but the combination of musical vibes seems to be good.
I'm curious to know how the co-headlining between the Devin Townsend Project and Katatonia, because. while there are certainly points of reference between what you each do, you embody something much more hopeful uplifting, whereas they are much more melancholy.
At first I didn't know what to expect. Somebody came up to me after a show recently and said, "I'd never heard your music before, and I like it, but would you do me a favour and write something super depressing?" And I was like, "Excuse me?" And he said, "I'm not happy unless I hear depressing music." And I mean, I can appreciate that, but I honestly think all that stuff is a choice. I think you draw things to yourself with what you out put there. Epicloud is a really hopeful and positive record, and some people who've done interviews recently have asked, "Is that you nature?" And I say, "No, that's a choice." Life's difficult for all of us. You wake up some mornings and it's like "Fuck, everything is a pile of shit." It's so easy to fall into that frame of mind where you just write about how much it sucks. You're given a loudspeaker when you do this professionally, and what you choose to say is what you put out there, and I have been trying to choose consciously to surround myself with people who are willing to make that choice to be positive. Hanging out with Katatonia and Paradise Lost and other folks who are coming at it from a different perspective, has shown me that I don't think in any way their perspective is better or worse, but there are definitely some moments here where I'm like, "Wow." And I just want to go up to some member of the audience and say to them, "Guys, come on. It's okay!"
It seems like your music has moved in a direction where you actively want it to do something. You're no longer simply responding, you're not just synthesizing or distilling experience, but you're trying to put something out that is actually doing work in the world.
I sort of had this realization over the past few days that shit, life is short. The whole existential dilemma that it all poses about what it is that you want out of life, is it money, is it happiness, is it any of these things? Do you ultimately want to know the answer to these unanswerable questions? I think that your time here is best spent trying to — I don't know how to articulate it... once you're dead, you're dead, but you might as well spread whatever you've been given in terms of your own energy the best way you can. I think that in terms of the media and life in general there's this real overwhelming faction of society that imposes fear and discontent just to make people buy shit. If you're terrified or don't feel attractive or your worthy of love, then there's tons of products to fill that void. I think, for me, I go, "No, fuck it, I want to be happy." The only way you can make yourself happy is being proactive. And maybe happy isn't even the right word.
Or patient? But I think it's a choice. Every minute of every day is a choice. And if you choose to look at it like it's half empty — and I'm not saying that right or wrong, but it has to resonate with what's in your world and I'm just not comfortable with that [negativity] anymore.
The word "making" yourself happy is really important here because it's not just a choice, but its work. And it really seems like you've been working through that publicly, or at least expressing in the last four album cycle that you've just finished prior to Epicloud [composed of Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost] which were in some ways a lot more introspective, whereas now it seems your work is turning outward again. It seems as though you had to do this internal work or personal work before you were ready to turn your gaze outward again.
I agree 100 percent. And I think the thing is, the part I find intriguing artistically is the fact that it is subconscious, like that process in general is inevitable. What I was doing with the prior four records, is I was prepared to confront the fact that maybe my nature was hostile at the root of it, or that the elements of my humanity that I was uncomfortable with... was afraid that at the root humanity, we are just evil.
You could have come to that; evil could have been the discovery.
Absolutely, and I was preparing for that I think. It was a lot like if you were trying to discover if you were gay. You have to prepare for it, and if you're trying to understand yourself or your sexuality or whatever, and you come across the fact that you're gay, well then there you go. And if you find out you're not, then there you go. I think as long as it's clarified, then you're good to go. I think its it's the same thing: I was prepared to learn that maybe the human animal is just really a horrible scourge. To clarify, I think it's 51-49 to be honest, and I don't think that at this particular state of evolution that any of the positive stuff is going to win out. I have the feeling that we're kind of at this crux. If you're waiting for some bullshit Mayan thing to come down, and put everyone is a better frame of mind or something, it's not going to happen. What's going happen is shit's gonna go to hell, and then the elements that define us as actually being worthy of whatever we have here are ultimately going to be the things that allows everyone to reconnect with it all. I think in my lifetime you won't see more than just chaos. But that being said, the choice is still: do you give in to that or what?
Are you the 49 or are you the 51? Which side are you going to put your chips on?
But with that, I think there is also the inevitable conflict, and this is something I'm very wary of. I think there's the inevitable "Us vs. Them" element that that I certainly am aware of, but it's not part of my process. I think that what is important is when you decide where you stand, it's because it's what you represent rather than making a war out of it. That's the inevitable conclusion when people find differences between each other.
It's also a kind of value judgement.
And because we're different and we're judging, then before you know it, everybody's fucking killing each other because you're not wearing the same colour underpants or something. At the end of it, I think it just comes down to: know yourself, make peace with that and say it as loud as you can. If anyone takes offence to that or that, then it's all within them, and I think it comes down to the fact that there's no right way of being. Just because I choose to be this way at this point in my life, it's because that's what I want in my life. And does that mean it's going to work? Hell no. I fail all the time, but the decision I make to be positive is based on being proactive in the ways that I feel I can.
Do you think that this clarity has come to bear on your work right now? Making this decision? Because it seems that, even aesthetically, Epicloud is a lot clearer, all the sound moving in the same direction. Musically it is still complex, but the vision is a lot clearer than a lot of your recent work.
Absolutely. I think subconsciously that is absolutely inevitable with the steps that I have taken in life, have put me in a position of confronting that. But at the same time, I think part of getting to know yourself is getting to now your nature. Years ago, maybe 15 years ago, a friend came over and gave me a personality test. Answer 200 very specific questions, and it gives you an analysis of your personality. And I answered it, honestly, not lying to myself. I was under the assumption that when the analysis came back, it would say you are a really smart person, and very complex; 15 years ago I was way further up my ass than I am now even. So the analysis came back, and it said, "You are basically just a cow. There is nothing complicated about you. Maybe your process of how you arrive at things is, maybe you're artistic, maybe your personality is convoluted in some ways, but your nature is as basic it can absolutely get." I found it really depressing, because I was convinced I was going to be Johnny Smartpants, and it was like, "Nope you like your food warm, you like a soft place to lay down, and you're as happy as can be."
So the lowest level of your Maslow's hierarchy of needs is met, and you're good.
And anything beyond that is just going to cause you problems. It took me a few years of being defiant about that until I finally started coming to the conclusion that maybe if I stopped pretending that what I like is this that and the other thing, and accept the fact that I'm more like my dad, and all those elements of my nature I'd been revolting against. With Epicloud, all this sort of stuff, the fact that I do like it simple, I like it quiet, is there. I'm still not there, but I am working towards it, but I definitely adapt for my environment,
I think you can see that laid out for you now, and the path is a lot clearer in front of you. I seems to me that you can see the direction that you're moving in. And in that case, do you define Epicloud as a metal album?
I think it has metal production. I don't think it's a metal record, no. For me, I'm a product of the '70s, so the things that attracted me to metal were a lot of the blues elements of it, like Judas Priest or Led Zeppelin or Motörhead or Ozzy, back in the '70s, even Van Halen, bands that were important to me as a young kid. A lot of that is blues, and that gets overlooked. Blues intervals really define metal for me. Now metal is very different, with melodic death and metalcore and all these offshoots that become increasingly more progressive and complicated. To me that is very different from that blues-influenced, dark, hard rock that drew me to it. And so, I think that metal in general has defined itself as something that I wouldn't have typically considered true heavy metal when I was a kid. It's brutal now in a different way. The only thing I've taken from metal is maybe the guitar sound and a bit of the drum sound, but even the drums are rooted more in hard rock. When I did Deconstruction, maybe my tenure in metal is coming to an end, so fuck it, I'll just do this.
Deconstruction came across not quite as a satire, because it was very loving, but it was very much pointing out things that were awesome and wonderful and simultaneously silly about metal.
I find that in general [metal is silly]. I think that the whole idea of "do what thou wilt" and all the credos that get attached to heavy music are very ironic, because it is such a conservative scene. I never professed to be a punk rocker or anything, of course not, I'm not, but that scene always made more sense to me. I always practiced guitar too much to really be involved with it, but I liked it because it was more like, "Fuck it, do what you're gonna do, and have fun." I like that. And somewhere along the line with Strapping Young Lad we got involved with the real "metal" scene, and I always just felt like a turd in the punch bowl to be honest. But as it progressed, I definitely thought that maybe it was time for me to move into other things. Ultimately I'm just following where it leads, I'm not professing to be anything, so whatever people want to call it or not call it, or if they like it or don't like it, that's fine.
I want to hear a little bit about the new Casualties of Cool project that you're been working on. So this is going to be a series of duets with Ché Aimee Dorval who performed in Ki?
Everything I do, I tend to be very vocal about online, and then it changes. I like to bounce it off of people and see what they think.
And they the internet says it's the worst idea in the history of the world...
...and maybe then I see it needs a little bit more work. Basically, Epicloud is... in a lot of ways, I'm trying to get people involved in what I do, so we can make musicals and symphonies. In order to do that, we need more people, we need more audience and manpower and all that stuff. To flex my appreciation for pop sensibilities on Epicloud was something I had been afraid to do for many years. Fear of being kicked out of the heavy metal chess club. But as I got older, I'm not too concerned about getting kicked out of any club, so it was not a big stretch to do that. At the same time, Epicloud is a reaction of course to everything else. Artistically it is very in line with everything that I've done, but on a personal level its a reaction to the amount of visibility that has increased for me over the past couple of years. That is something that I am typically never comfortable with. I draw a very distinct line between musician and music. I love the idea of the collective unconscious, the idea that musicians are somehow not entirely responsible for what they create, but rather channel it, they're just responsible for articulating it.
So the more you collaborate, the more possible it is to believe that?
Of course, and new people put you in a position of being able to understand this, or hear this. But that being said, with Epicloud, even the art and everything, it's kind of an empty suit. In a way, I think my true nature is hidden. What I did with Epicloud was that I exaggerated the part of me that has evolved into the person whose willing to make those decisions [to move towards pop], so it's still me, but it's definitely a part of me that's become public. So Casualties of Cool has ended up being this project that is maybe the hidden part of it. The artwork is all on the moon. Essentially, after all these four records with Deconstruction and everything, there's this part of me that felt like, that whole metaphor of trying to figure out the unfathomable, that we're trying to reach these answers that are beyond humans at this point. In the end, you can't un-ring a bell. Once you've seen certain things, whether it's through trauma or drugs or circumstance, your perception is going to be altered permanently. And I think that quest, if you want to look at what's the meaning behind it, has split me as an artist into two directions: one of which is this person who's unafraid to be public in a way that I've always been afraid of, and that's represented in Epicloud. The other side has just absolutely isolated me as an artist, to the point where I am watching it from a distance.
And Casualties of Cool is that. It's this extremely dark, extremely minimal, extremely minimal, sort of haunted country music. It all sounds like mid-'50s Johnny Cash sort of stuff, incredibly quiet. The vocals are very dark and minimal, the whole thing is minimal. I'd really like for it to be like one guitar for three minutes or something. The impression I'm trying to give is there's like a guy stuck on the moon watching all this stuff happen and al he's got to keep him going is this old '50s radio that's playing all these dead voices. And I like that. I find myself very comfortable with Casualties, and it's the caboose at the end of this DTP train. I've got a drummer involved with it whose name is Morgan Ågren, he was Zappa's last drummer, he's played with Fredrik Thordendal on his last solo album Soul Nger Within. He's just an absolutely inhuman drummer, but to have somebody of that calibre just playing Johnny Cash-type songs, he's just ideal for it because a large part of the Casualties record is restraint, the idea of people having the ability to do so much and then just not. I like that.
That's going to be extremely interesting when paired with Epicloud, with that record being so much, so luxurious, the texture is so interesting and lush, and then to have this spare, minimal, evoking-the-vacuum-of-space quality, that's going to be really cool rubbing against each other.
I'm glad that you can see that. That's the whole thing, to have that parallel, that plays into everything I've done. I've always worked in parallels, but this one's important to me, because on some level I felt I had to close my eyes and plug my nose and jump with Epicloud, because it's a step that's been always a threat for my entire career. If you want to take it to that next level, and we know you do, what it's going to take is for you to get past your fear of music that people like, and sabotaging it with some stupid thing. That's always been unbeknownst to myself, that fear, because then you're vulnerable, you're sticking your neck out. It's a lot more comforting and comfortable and safe to make a record like Deconstruction, with complicated shit and metaphors because it makes it like a defence mechanism. You're surrounding yourself with complicated stuff, and so you're not accessible. But then by making it accessible, I feel I've had to confront that element of music, but I guess the bottom line was, I got to the point where I really thought about it and though it it's what I want to do, then I should do it.
If that's the thing that is going to come out, that is the thing you need to do. It's harder when you're doing something minimal, especially emotionally. When you're doing something complicated you give people a lot more of the aesthetic to talk about, but then you release a record that's super minimal and about loneliness, and then that genuine feeling is all you're left to talk about, or confront that thing that is really simple.
I think that's the thing I learned way back when I did Alien with Strapping Young Lad: you're on the hook for all of it. As long as you can do it, you're good. The whole hero-martyr thing is a real pitfall to all of this because you have to navigate what people's projections of it are as well. Like if you do something that lonely-sounding, does that mean you as a person are lonely? I think that it's important for me to have a really clear distinction between me, the 40-year-old bald Canadian guy who's just trying to figure out how to get everything finished, and whatever it is artistically I feel compelled to do. I think I am interested in frames of mine, but more so instead of seeking it out I let it come to me and then just try and finish it. I always know when I'm doing something in the direction I should be doing because I feel completely motivated to work on that to the exclusion of everything else, and that was the case with everything I've done: the four things, and the Strapping stuff, Ziltoid and Casualties and Epicloud. When I'm working on something it fills my whole world with that aesthetic, and all paths lead to Rome and eventually its finished.
You've been incredibly prolific over the past few years, and on an extraordinary scale. Do you feel that you are you able to keep that energy up because you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing?
That is true. I think age has something to do with that too, where you're able to reconcile certain things internally that had at one time caused you hesitation. More than anything else, though, in my case, it was that I quit doing drugs and I quit drinking. Suddenly I had eight extra hours a day to fill. Five or six years ago I just realized okay, this isn't working for me anymore. The people in my life who rely on me to not be an asshole I'm being an asshole to, so it's very obvious to me what the culprit is, so let's get away from that. Then you have to relearn your process. "Now what do I do today?" When your every day is you wake up in the morning and have nine bong rips and a pot of coffee and sit around until five in the afternoon, then you get rid of that, and you're like, "Shit, I guess I better mow the lawn," I gotta do this with an entire day. By the end of it you're like, you're saying, "I have these guitars here, I might as well see what happens."
The question I really want to ask you now is about Ziltoid. Where that project is, how far along is Z2? You've said that you want to take it to new level of epicness, so what does that mean? How to balance the campy charm with doing it on a much larger scale?
All of these things are several years from being clear to me, I think. The music that I have written for it so far is a lot more serious than it has been in the past, and the puppet that we're building for it is a lot more realistic, and much bigger. The new one is animatronic, three people operate it, it looks like real, but it still has the googly eyes. Maybe all it's going to take to keep that camp to it is something as subtle as that. I think that what I am planning to do for Z2 is a lot. It includes a movie hopefully and a TV show or at least and internet show, and to really use the symphony with it and to make the music just unbelievably science-fiction. The story: this time I have an inkling of which direction it is going to go in, but so far it is complicated and it can't be. I've got to wait till I can summarize the story in a sentence, and then I can start to fill in the blanks. Right now its like I hear myself talk about my ideas and it takes 15 minutes and at the end people say, "Wow, that's really complicated." I'm working towards it, and I have a bunch of steps to finish before it appears, but its going to be intense. Ziltoid's still a dick, has ended up being more goofy than he ever has been. Now he's just going to look intense.