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Interview – Devin Townsend, August 2013

| 29 September 2013 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Originally published in X-Press Magazine’s 17th September 2013 issue – HERE

Devin Townsend has blazed a fiercely individual trail for 20 years, constantly devising forward-thinking and wilfully, unapologetically original music. On the eve of his latest Australian tour, SHANE PINNEGAR picks up the phone and throws most of his his questions out the window.

Devin Townsend 01

It’s the tail end of a hot summer in Vancouver, Canada, and Townsend’s at home pining for the Australian winter.

“You know what,” he states with customary intensity, “where you are IS the nicer weather. I am not a fan of sun, I like it raining. We’ve had two months of sun in Vancouver, and all these typically miserable, pale-skinned Vancouverites who spend the majority of the time going around bitching about life are out now with zinc on their nose pretending like this is the norm – and I have to say, man, I fucking hate it! I want it to be 71 1/2 degrees F [22 C] all the time, with a light mist of rain and, you know, a real dark grey sort of sky. If it’s that way, man, I am good to go! But this whole ‘sun, everybody out with a beach ball’ shit, can just go far away from me!”

Australia has long had a bit of a love affair with Townsend and his music, whether it be solo projects, his band Strapping Young Lad, or hid more recent ensemble, The Devin Townsend Project.

“I rarely think about that, but if I was to think about it and it is true,” Townsend says of the possible connection between Australian audiences and his music, “there’s an element that Canada and Australia shares. There’s a similar sort of population density and similar size land mass, probably the same sense of humour that we grew up with – the same sort of comedy. But I also think – from my interactions with Australian folks, and again this is generalising – I don’t think that I have to butter things up – generalising, as I said, there are idiots everywhere – but to my friends in Australia, I don’t feel I have to lie, or butter things up. And that is, for better or worse, how I am artistically as well – I don’t like to compromise, in terms of vision. I don’t like to be told ‘you’ll make more money if you do it that way’ and then go and do it that way. I do what I do because I am compelled to do it, and to not follow those compulsions always ends in something that I’m not satisfied with. So, perhaps a combination of that characteristic of our two cultures, combined with my lack of desire to compromise my vision, makes it that we’re not lying to each other, and that makes it a fun relationship.”

Devin Townsend 02

Townsend has always been COMPELLED to create. His early projects were routinely flatly turned down by the same record companies that offered him sideman jobs with the likes of The Wildhearts, Steve Vai and others. His experiences touring the Sex Religion album with Vai left a horrible taste in his mouth, and a serve of his own poop in one of his boss’s guitar cases. An extreme reaction, for sure, and one which Townsend has previously reasoned as “trying to define myself around him.”

He left that band (Vai) and went right back to his own art, though, staying positive and certain in the belief that one day it would work out, and eventually it did.

“I like the idea of ‘What does it mean to be happy?’, he says now of sticking to his guns and believing he was on the right path back then. “Someone said to me the other day that wanting is such a blessing. Because through the desire, through the need to want things, then the moment that you get what you want, you realise that the satisfaction you get is not through getting what you want, but because you know that you get what you want, so you’re happy about that. You get what you want and then you top wanting.

“My reason for fighting for all those years was not to be some sort of Ann Rand, altruistic thing – it’s just because I want to be happy! I hate being miserable – it sucks! I hate all the things that I am, so the goals are to work through it, and by working through it, you gotta fight! Otherwise you’re gonna have people who are going to step on you, and tell you the way they want it. You HAVE to fight, it sucks, I don’t like fighting, but I will, because I’d rather fight than be unhappy, if you know what I mean.”

Townsend goes on the explain the sort of freedom he allows the members of his band in the studio or on stage.

“It depends on what the vision is – I encourage people to take control of their own contribution, however it’s within the parameters of the vision. So to illustrate that, I might say that on this project we’re working on now, this is the vision. The parameters of it mean that it can’t extend past this example here on this side, and this example here on that side, however, your job is this area [in between these two points] and what you do in there is entirely up to you. However, the only thing I retain over it is veto power – ‘nope, you went too far, let’s pull it back a bit.’ So I want people to express themselves with flair, but at the end of it, if it strays too far from the original vision and I lose sight of the goal… with that, it [would] become an idea-less project, a project that has no clear objective and has no clear leader – and as a result of that become this kind of wishy washy experience for the listener, and that’s not what I’m about.

“I’m about trying to give the people who participate in the music a very definite vibe or experience. For example, this Casualties [Of Cool] record I’m working on now, I want people to listen to it quietly, middle of the night, maybe with a full moon. There you go. If you listen to it that way, I think you’ll get it. If you listen to it in a car with the windows down while you’re driving with a bunch of friends, I think you’re gonna think it’s a piece of shit – but in the right environment, it works really well. And that’s kinda how it’s all been structured – but it takes a lot of people to bring together some visions! I’d love to do some of these things on my own, but when the vision becomes larger, to think that you could do it yourself is absurd so you really need people you can trust.”

Devin Townsend 03

All this talk of working within parameters is fascinating – does Townsend consider himself an artist or a scientist – or perhaps even an alchemist?

“That’s an interesting question,” he says thoughtfully, “I don’t consider myself anything, really. I rarely consider myself an artist, because artists make me crazy. I can see how the combining of elements to create something else can be viewed as some kind of alchemy – but it’s not with the intention of doing that, it just seems to be what happens. And in terms of science, I like to establish order in chaos, and I do like patterns – but I don’t like repeating patterns. So, to answer the question in a really roundabout way: I have an interest in all three of those things – art, science and alchemy. But if I was to say ‘what am I doing?’… I’m just having a good time, and that’s really what it comes down to. I’m just trying to have a good time and trying to find ways in life for me as a human being to be functional, because, you know, my mind is usually just a minefield, right. So my goal is to become functional, but I’m certainly not going to keep repeating patterns simply because by bitching and complaining about those patterns, they’re going to change. I’m actively trying to find ways to make my life pleasant. Through that process I find there’s tons of things – there’s music, there’s poetry, there’s writing, there’s art – and none of it is like my goal, it’s just the process.”

Anyone who knows even a little about Townsend will know he is eccentric, to put it mildly. This is a man who reportedly ‘experimented’ with his Bipolar Disorder by not taking his meds, in order to explore that artistically in terms of seeing where it took him.

“That’s a really romantic way of describing it, I must admit,” he states, mildly amused. “Basically, with the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, I was unsure that it was legitimate, so I stopped taking the medication in order to see if that Bipolar Disorder existed without it. And the mistake I made at the time, is because the withdrawal from that medication is so severe, I self medicated during that period with alcohol and marijuana… and I had a full blown episode.

“What did I learn from that? I learnt that you should stand back a little bit and look what you’re doing. I don’t know if I’m Bipolar, so I’m going to stop taking the thing that keeps it at bay, and do a bunch of drugs. See what happens? Then you can objectively say that that was an experiment. But again, at that time, my motivation was once again to try and get myself to a place where I was satisfied. It wasn’t – as it may appear – some sort of bubbling cauldron, scientific experiment to see what my brain would do in that situation. It was simply me thinking, ‘well maybe that’s not the case. Maybe that diagnosis sucks. Maybe I can do these drugs and drink like a fish because other people I know can, and it’s these psychiatric meds that are holding me back.’

“Well, you know, you learn… you learn and you fuck up, and if you’re not a total idiot you try not to make those same mistakes again, right? But it was by no means… ‘Day 15 – the drugs have worn off’… all that shit, it sounds way more romantic than it is! I was puking myself at night and waking up the next day going ‘right, you gotta figure this out’ “

So is Devin Townsend a weirdo? Is he perhaps some kind of Mad Professor, or – as some unhinged people have taken to labelling him – a prophet?

“You know the old saying,” he laughs, “call me anything you want, just don’t call me late for dinner, right? Nah, look, if people want to think I’m crazy then go for it. There are enough interviews out there where I was high on acid, talking about stupid shit, as if people didn’t have enough fuel to back that up. And in terms of any sort of prophet-ship, I hate religion – I hate all that stuff. I think human beings are so hung up on trying to find heroes or martyrs, that as soon as somebody does something above the norm, it just people scramble to put some kind of significance on it. And if it goes in a religious kind of way it just makes me not want to do it any more because I’m like, ‘oh come on, grow up. I’m so fucked its painful!’

“So if people are looking at what I’m doing as anything other than working, then someone should tell them to follow their own vision. Shit, I’m just projecting, I don’t have ANYTHING figured out, man. I don’t even know how to be myself, let alone offer people solutions to their own bullshit!

“It’s funny how quickly people want to assume because you’ve – in whatever circumstances – you’ve found that you can be artistically free or open or uncompromising, then they assume that for some reason you are better or more talented or more capable than other people! I got to where I am in life, not because I had, like, a clear objective – it’s just that shit happens, right, and here I am!”

Devin Townsend 04

Townsend says his Devin Townsend Project will play material from almost all of his career on their forthcoming tour.

“I don’t play any Strapping Young Lad,” he admits, “but I do delve back into some of the earlier records like Ocean Machine, Synchestra, Terria, things like this. But my catalogue at this point – and now with Casualties [Of Cool] and the new Ziltoid material – the band themselves are able to represent a lot of what we do and give a cross section of emotional width that allows the show to be engaging, I think. So it’s that – we’re utilising most of the back catalogue to give the show dynamics.”

Before Townsend hits Australia his new Live DVD/CD Retinal Circus will be released. An epic three hour show filmed in London, he explains that the viewer may be confronted by the release.

“Wow,” he gasps, “Retinal Circus was a very intense experience that involved a lot of us to work really hard on something that ultimately is a way to look at a synopsis of twenty years of experimenting. The experience of watching The Retinal Circus itself is a very profoundly odd thing that is really over the top, really nerdy and troubling to some people. Ultimately, for me it’s a success because it frames that awkwardness and it doesn’t hide it. You know, there’s a lot of people who are maybe awkward by nature but then spend a great deal of energy trying to pretend they’re not. But with Retinal Circus it’s very much ‘of course we’re fucking awkward!’ and here it is, with explosions and people hanging from fuckin’ ropes, and all sorts of shit.

It sounds amazing, but before I can get another question in, Townsend cuts proceedings short exactly on the 15 minute mark – “Look, I gotta run, man, talk later” – and with that, the Mad Professor of prog metal is gone.

Devin Townsend Project Australian tour dates

Thursday, 10th October, The Auditorium, Brisbane – AA
Friday, 11th October, The Metro, Sydney – Licensed/AA
Sunday, 13th October, The Palace, Melbourne – 18+
Tuesday, 15th October, Metropolis, Fremantle – 18+

Category: Interviews

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