Devin Townsend interview (06/2018)
|Conducted by:||ScreamingSteelUS (skype)|
Devin Townsend, one of metal's most eccentric and prolific figures, graciously agreed to put up with me for half an hour to talk about recent developments in his career. Metal Storm has interviewed Devin several times before, most recently in 2012, and we now find him, six years and three albums later, in the midst of a very different state of affairs. On July 6, he will be releasing Ocean Machine - Live at the Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv, and I opened by reminding him of this.
ScreamingSteelUS: Next month, you're releasing Ocean Machine - Live At The Ancient Roman Theatre Plovdiv.
Devin Townsend: Correct.
SSUS: Given how long you spent writing some of that material, and how many issues you had with recording it and then releasing it - the original album, that is - does it seem strange looking back now that it's 20 years later and you're playing the album in its entirety, seeing how people react to that?
DT: I've kind of stopped interpreting many things as strange, because I think if I go down that avenue everything is just fundamentally bizarre, right? I don't necessarily think of it as "strange," but I think of it as ironic, considering how little faith the people who had heard the music at the time had put into it. The reaction to it was very much like, "This will never see the light of day," in a lot of ways, so the fact that all these years later we were able to do it in a situation that was as triumphant as that is ironic - but I also think that the difficulties that I had with that record, now, 20 years later, I realize that's just part of the process, man. Every record's a pain in the ass to bring to completion articulately, so, you know, effort doesn't count for much.
The fabled live release.
SSUS: Well, it certainly shows. I'm curious about the preoccupation that album has with water - the ocean, rain, the color blue, that whole sort of image.
DT: I think the easiest way for me to describe that would be to discuss the creative process that I employ, which, if I'm being honest, has not altered at all since the beginning - the face of which has obviously changed, be it Terria or Casualties Of Cool or Ghost or Strapping or Ziltoid… It's all different aesthetics and sonics, obviously, but the intention is identical, and the easiest way for me to describe that is my creative compulsions typically start with me being drawn towards something, and in the beginning it's often really subtle things, like I may find myself interested in a certain color, or a Hawaiian shirt or something might draw my interest to it where I want to wear it every day, or I'm interested in movies that have a theme that is, I don't know, out of the blue, finding things in the shadows, whatever it is, but it usually starts with a subtle pointer towards something that is compelling. Then as the process continues, it's really akin to an archaeological dig where you see something sticking up, whatever that subtle thing is, and then you just slowly start to excavate it, for no other reason than… almost idleness. You do that because it's interesting. And then eventually the theme becomes very pinpointed, and in the case of Ocean Machine, you know, water and blue and rain and all these sorts of things, but in a similar sense, you could look at Casualties with black and white and the moon and night and Synchestra with nature and orange… Each one of these periods of my life and creative development ultimately, if I do them right, have very distinct aesthetic and sonic attributes, and the reason for that… I think it's just a loophole for me, because I just don't think I'm particularly emotionally intelligent. I think I can recognize that I have emotions, but I'm really slow to be able to articulate what those emotions are, so the loophole for me, since the very beginning, has been those creative compulsions towards certain things, whatever they may be, ultimately lead in hindsight to me being able to listen to the record and say, "Oh, okay, you were mad," or "you were sad" or "you were in love" or "you were depressed" or any number of things. Ocean Machine and the reason it fell into that category was just a sign of the times for me at that point, and the interest in the things that define that record. There's very rarely a point to it; it's just you're following where it leads.
SSUS: If I'm understanding you correctly, your creative process is almost unintentional.
DT: 100%. Oh my God, that's why it's frustrating, not only for myself, but for the people around me, because the identity of it shifts all the time. Specifically, when I'm writing a record, I'll be like, "Oh, this next record is about X," and then a month later, I'm like, "No, no, no, actually it isn't. It's kind of about that, but it's actually more about this. The more I explored that, the more I realized that underneath that was something that that was just a cover or whatever for," and then by the end of it, once I've weeded through all those sorts of fumblings around in the dark that happens, I'm able to really accurately define that period, and that's great for me as a person and as an artist, but because it's completely unintentional, because I'm completely oblivious to it while it's happening, I unfortunately have tended to drag people through that, and a lot of times the people that I unintentionally drag through this stuff, it makes no sense to them. They just interpret that as me being scattered, when, to be honest, it's just trying to make sense out of something that is fundamentally chaotic, and so that's just what happens.
SSUS: One of the reasons why I and a lot of other fans of yours ARE fans of yours, and why we connect to your music so much, is because in basically everything you do, whatever style it is, whatever mood it is, you're able to open up yourself a lot into that and express yourself in a profound way musically, even if it's not a literal way or explicit way. I think it's possible to detect some kind of real truth behind your emotional state or whatever it is.
DT: That's the goal. That's always the goal. If somebody was to say, "What is your goal?", artistically, or even as a human being, it's the pursuit of truth. That's it. And I'm not talking about it in a spiritual way, I'm not talking about it in a personal way, I'm talking about it in a fundamental way. I want to participate in things and I don't want bullshit, and I think the upside of being able to articulate that is, because I don't feel particularly emotionally astute, it's really important for me to be able to make music that ticks the boxes for me, so when I listen to it I'm like, "That's a real emotion there," whether or not it's anger, whether or not it's sadness, whether or not it's happiness. It's like my goal, above and beyond the aesthetics of the record, is [to] get to the foundation of what it is that you're trying to participate in.
But that also leads me to why I would have disbanded the band at this point. The quest for it being articulate or authentic can be derailed by obligations that come from being the head of a band or being somebody in a business position who has people dependent on him for money.
The fabled man.
SSUS: You said on Twitter that you felt pressure to be constantly productive because you had a touring band.
DT: Totally. As much attention as I get, I don't sell a lot of records, so the ratio of productivity to being able to sit back after 10 years of touring and say, "Where the fuck am I?", was grossly unbalanced for me, and what I needed to do was have no pressure so I could really analyze what has happened, what's happening at this stage of my life, middle age, and then, as a result of that, without the pressure of, "Okay, well, you need to make X amount of money per month," and, "in order to not travel in a splitter van for the next tour, you're gonna have to consider writing something that's a little more commercial, a little more this and that." That's the absolute antithesis of the creative process. The creative process for me requires me to fuck around with it until it doesn't irritate me anymore, and that can lead to, and it often does lead to, things that I have no anticipation of. I'm like, "Well, where did this come from? Where did Casualties come from? Where did Ziltoid come from? Where did Ghost come from? Deconstruction, any of these things?" I don't know until I'm in the final throes of the writing of an album what it is, where it comes from, or what it's going to mean, so to have those sorts of expectations on me, no matter how benign they are, without malice they are, from the label or management or band or whatever, it changes what I do to the point where I ran out of things to say. I mean, there's nothing more to say; what are you going to write about? Your sphere of influence becomes the band. It's not like you're able to grow in a lot of ways, and it's unfortunate for me because I've realized that through this process - this is the third, fourth time, maybe, that I've gone through a situation with a group of individuals and that we were almost at a point where it was going to transpire into something bigger than what it was, and to consistently have pulled the rug out from underneath of people has been something that I've had to spend a lot of time analyzing, because I hate doing that. I hate doing that. These are people I care about, you know? But ultimately what I hope that this experience will teach me is that, as much as I enjoy the camaraderie of being in a band, I think from here on out I need to function in a fundamentally different way. I think I need to be a solo artist and hire people as free agents.
SSUS: It's interesting that you came to this conclusion after Transcendence, because Transcendence felt like a perfect way - if the Project had to end, I think Transcendence was a perfect way to do that, because it feels like a culmination of a lot of elements that had been present in previous albums and you said you had solicited creative contributions from the other guys in the band, which you hadn't done before.
DT: I would be lying to you if I said I didn't know that at the time, that it was the end. I think the name of the album, the way that the process went about, although it was probably not conscious at the time - I certainly wasn't harboring the idea of, "This is going to be it, and then I'll just let the guys go" - but it was certainly something I was struggling with, so in light of how it seems like my creative compulsions come out subconsciously, I can't imagine that Transcendence as an album, the theme of it, wasn't directly connected to that subconscious feeling that I think I'm finished with this.
And that's not necessarily to say that it's "over," or whatever, but it certainly is right now, so…
I managed to get some severance pay for the guys and did a lot of leg work to try and keep those levels of communication open in ways that… Several of the guys just did not understand why I would make that decision, and it was very challenging, of course, but one of the steps that I think Transcendence introduced to my creative process is that you can't make everybody happy. To try and do so is the death of music, in a lot of ways, so the decision required me to be really selfish, and that sucks, man. It sucks. But, ultimately, the growth that I feel I'm taking right now is in direct result of that decision, so… that's life, right?
SSUS: It's not an enviable decision to make, but if that's the direction you feel you have to go, then…
DT: Well, the alternative was the Project becoming successful in a way that I found uninspiring. Even the last couple of records, Z2 and Transcendence and what have you, I really struggled with those. I think they ended up really good, but only because of inhuman amounts of effort to make sure they did. The process was not one of joy on a creative level. I mean, it was fun for sure - don't get me wrong, it wasn't like I was pulling teeth - but there was something missing for me and I couldn't put my finger on it. I'm like, "Why does this seem like work right now?" I think in hindsight the reason it does is because it's a treadmill that you get on with being in a band, specifically at the level that I'm at where I set a precedent within the band as to how we traveled and the type of crew that we would travel with. For the amount of money and for the amount of records that we sold, we traveled really well. Because of that precedent, it's very difficult to say, "Okay, guys, for the next record, we're back in the van and everybody do what I say again." It just doesn't work like that, you know what I mean? Yeah, it's not an enviable position, but I learned that by doing it and by going through the pain on a friendship level that that brought, I learned that it was the right thing for me to do and "don't fuckin' do that again, man."
SSUS: Are you finding joy again in writing and recording music with the other projects you have going on?
DT: Huge. In ways that I haven't for decades.
SSUS: That's good to hear.
DT: It is. It's the best.
Finding joy in all things.
SSUS: I'm curious especially about Empath, partly because it sounds like a very emotionally charged album, and also because of that 20-minute song you've been talking about. I'm very interested in that.
DT: It is emotionally charged. It's chaotic music, because it's a chaotic period; however, Empath… I think the deeper I get into it and the more its identity is starting to surface, Empath is going to act as a bridge, I think - or not a bridge, but a stopgap between what I was doing and what I'm going to be doing after. I've got this idea for The Moth and this musical and all these sorts of things that are really challenging, I would think, for people who have got something invested in what I do, to release immediately. If I came out of Transcendence and was just like, "Well, fuck everybody, I'm gonna make a musical," I think that the quality would be something that I would think was right, but I've also got to be careful, you know what I mean? As much as you hear artists say, "What the audience feels about what I do doesn't play into my creative process at all, I'm gonna do whatever I want" - I mean, I don't feel that way. I feel that the audience is involved with what I do on a real primary level, so I want to be cognizant of how the trajectory of these album cycles go so that you're not just doing whatever the fuck you want. It's a fine line between, with Empath, doing whatever the fuck I want but also making it something that people want to hear, you know what I mean?
So, yes, there's 20-minute-long songs, but there's also really emotionally charged, heavy, melodic things as well. Its identity is still evolving and I've got way too much material right now, so that's where I'm kind of struggling, is every time I go to make decisions on it I write something else, and then I'm like, "Oh, great, now what?" And every time I write something new, I'm like, "Well, that's also a different vibe, so should I pursue more songs like that and have an album of all one thing, or should I take the best bits of all these disparate styles and make one weird patchwork thing with it, or should it be this super confusing prog thing? Should it be super heavy?" I'm spoiled for choice at this point, but it's also really important for me to make decisions that are pleasing to hear so you're not just using the faith that your audience has in you to throw them whatever it is that you're feeling without any… It's accountability, man. It's like being in any relationship.
SSUS: Is it difficult for you, knowing how strongly you invest yourself in the emotional aspect of these records, knowing that this side of your personality, this part of you is going to be open for the world and anyone can stop by and see? Does that make it more difficult to open up?
DT: I think that would worry me if I had a ton invested in it, but I don't, and I think, at least I've tried to be clear that, although I invest huge amounts of energy into what I do and I put massive significance on what I do, I'm aware that it's not really a big deal, you know what I mean? Without me investing that into it, the people who do give a shit about it aren't going to get much out of it, because unless you care about it, no one else is going to, but I also take it with a grain of salt. I've had a tendency of being really self-depreciating [sic] and all that stuff, and I think that's kind of rooted in what we're talking about in that a person can spend years and years and years throwing his heart and soul and life into his music, and there's people who're just like, "Yeah, no, not into it," or people that'll hear and be like, "Yeah, I like the last record better," and I think if you internalize those sorts of very predictable and expected responses as being them saying, "I don't like you as a result of what I hear," I think that's your own hang-ups, man. For me, I put everything into it, and if people don't like it, I just don't care, you know? I want to have an eye on the people who really like what I do so that I'm not slapping them in the face every time and being like, "Well, now I'm releasing this crazy record that has nothing to do with what I've created a career on," but at the same time, all I can do is do my best, and if people don't like it, what are you going to do, man, throw yourself on the ground and kick yourself in a circle screaming? Ultimately, it's hilarious. It's just a bunch of humans, I'm just another human, and this is my contribution to it. The world keeps turning whether or not I make records.
SSUS: "It's just entertainment, folks," if I may quote your own words at you.
DT: Absolutely. Absolutely, man, it's been the same thing since far back then. However, that doesn't mean I don't take it seriously. It's one of the, if not the most important things in my fuckin' life - but that's me. It's got nothing to do with the world at large and I'm fully and comfortably aware of that.
SSUS: I think that self-awareness is important.
D: I think it's a good commodity when it comes to trying to bridge the gap between artistic fulfillment and entertaining people.
SSUS: If I could circle back around to the new Ocean Machine live release, you had John ["Squid"] Harder play bass with you at that show?
SSUS: Had you been in touch, or did you just get back together for this?
DT: Yeah, well, I mean… Squid got MS over the past couple years and we've been in contact since Ocean Machine, but… in touch, out of touch, things happen, life goes on, but it's always been a good relationship. Recently, I hadn't heard from him in a couple years and then a bunch of friends were like, "Hey, man, I don't know if you know, but Squid's got MS," and he's got the gnarly one, too, right, the degenerative one that, like, fucks you in the ass over a period of ten years or whatever… So there was a benefit show in Vancouver where local musicians were doing performances to raise some money, and then I got involved with that and then we did help him with his pledge drive and made him a bit of money on that, and then just as a result of those certain situations and reconnecting, we became in each other's sights again, and then I was so busy with DTP - I mean, when I say I toured without being able to process anything, that's no word of exaggeration. We did Ocean Machine at Hammersmith in London and when the thing up in Bulgaria came up he just sent me a text and he was like, "Hey, man, I heard you're doing this thing and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little jealous and I wouldn't like to be involved with that," because the drummer from Ocean Machine had unfortunately taken his own life a few years before and blah blah blah and I was like, "Oh, shit, I never even thought of it," because I thought in his condition he was just not able to play anymore, but he said, "If I'm in a situation where I'm cool enough, I've got a fan and I've got some support and the wheelchair and whatever, I could pull it off," and I was like, "Well, fuck yeah, let's do it." It was as simple as that. And then I talked to Beav [Brian "Beavis" Waddell], who was the bass player in DTP and who I've known since I was 13 years old - I mean, this is Beav, this is my buddy from years back - and I was just like, "Hey, man, Squid wants to play," and Brian was like, "Oh, of course, yeah, of course he plays." So it just kind of came together, and fortunately for Squid it was a cool night. I don't know how much you know about MS -
SSUS: Not a great deal.
DT: On hot days, they suffer, people who have that suffer greatly, so the fact that it was a cool night made it easier for him as well, and it just worked out.
SSUS: I'm really glad that came together, logistically and physically.
DT: Yeah, same, man. We had his brother come along with him and we got there a few days ahead of time… It's one of those things where it's like, ultimately you've got music and you've got bands and audience and all that sort of stuff, but you take any of these things far enough back and it's all about relationships, right? It's good to be able to have that opportunity on multiple levels.
SSUS: You opened up that show with a "by request" set, which you've done a few of. Do you ever get disappointed by the choices?
DT: No, not really. Other than a few instances of music that are in my catalogue, there's not a lot of songs I've written that I think out-and-out suck.
SSUS: I'd have to agree.
DT: There's something that are obviously just throwaways, but if I'm going to invest the effort in letting them be heard, there's something about them that I dig, so for the most part, although I've got things I like more than others, all those songs are things I was happy to play again, and it was really cool for me to reconnect with some of those songs as well and be like, "Oh, right, I remember where I was at when I wrote this and I remember thinking when I wrote, whatever, 'A Simple Lullaby,' that 'man, how cool would it be to do that one day, to put fireworks and all this shit'"… So they all offer these unique opportunities to do what was supposed to be done with them in the beginning.
SSUS: I was surprised to see there were four songs from Transcendence.
DT: I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that there was no real time off the road, so amidst the learning that we had to do, the fact that those songs were requested were really convenient for the band, because we knew them. We could go into those tracks with a modicum of authority, as opposed to some of the tracks where you played it twice and now you're doing it with an orchestra and you don't know your moves and you don't know where to take breaths and they'll certainly come off as awkward, so having a couple of things that you know really well benefited the flow.
SSUS: I think I've just about reached the end of my questions. I just have one more for you: could you please do a video in the style of the "Lucky Animals" video for every song you've recorded?
DT: (laughs) I think, as much as I'd be into it, I may have used up all my fundamental moves in that one. I've got a limited repertoire of dance moves and, man, that was chock full of them.
SSUS: Better than I could do.
DT: It's dad rock, man. Funny thing about that is I did that video to show people what I was thinking would be cool if they did it themselves, but that ended up becoming the video for it in a weird way, just me dancing around in my backyard like an idiot. I'll see what we can do, man, I'll see what we can do. I'll see if I can practice some new ones and come up with a blinder.
SSUS: Excellent. Do you have any final words for the eventual consumers of this interview?
DT: It's been a lot of change for me, and that's the only constant, I think. I notice there were people that, when I broke up DTP, were saying things like, "Rest in peace, DTP," and then showing a picture of Ocean Machine. I think that maybe a misconception with some of the people who are new to this is that what I'm going to do in the future is somehow fundamentally different than what I've done in the past? Man, it doesn't matter the face it takes, whether or not it's Casualties or Terria or Strapping or DTP or whatever. It's all coming from the same place. What I'm doing next is exactly the same thing that I've done in the past; it's just this is the next step of it. There's a good chance if you resonate with what I write it's because it's coming from a place of authenticity, so if anything it'll be better than it was in the past, but who knows?
SSUS: It was a little bit of a shock to me as a fan of DTP and everything that's come out under that name, but, like you said, it's all coming from the same place.[/b]
DT: DTP itself, if you look at it - Ki, Addicted!, Deconstruction, Ghost - that wasn't the same band. It was all different people. Dave [Young, guitarist/keyboardist] was involved with a couple of them and Ryan [van Poederooyen, drummer] was on Addicted! and half of Deconstruction… But, dude, it's like, it's all different people, and DTP as an entity became the entity when I started doing Epicloud. Epicloud, Z2, [and] Transcendence were the records that were those group of guys, but, other than certain parts of Transcendence… That's all stuff that I wrote in the same way that I've written everything. It's unfortunate because I myself appreciate having a consistent face on a group of individuals that perform music, but ultimately I have to be realistic about the fact that I don't want dependents, I don't want to have to be responsible for large amounts of money per month that puts me in a position where I never get a chance to process it, I never get a chance to think about anything new artistically, I never get a chance to be home… After a while, I'm saying, "This is stupid, dude. You really need to make this decision." As hard of a decision as it was to make, and as hard as it was for some of the people who really have something invested in it, it was the right decision for me, so there it is.
SSUS: And as a fan, I have only respect for that decision.
DT: I appreciate it, man. I hope that when you hear what that decision yields you'll be like, "Oh, of course. Of course you had to do that."
SSUS: I look forward to it.
DT: I don't have a lot invested in trying to convince people of anything; the proof will be there when the record comes out. Some people will not like it and move on, and other people will be like, "Oh my God, I've been waiting for this kind of thing to come back for many years."
All right; thank you very much again for taking the time to do this.
DT: Sure, dude.
[It was at this point that I availed myself of the opportunity to express my gratitude to Devin on a personal level - and I was going to cut the interview here, but then he began saying more things that were interesting, so I've thrown in a little extra interview because I like you people.]
DT: You had mentioned something earlier that I'd like to just swirl back on as well, where we were talking about literal manifestations of your psyche in lyrics or whatever, and I think one thing that I have found that I had lost to a certain extent over the past ten years was my ability to be direct, and I think if there's anything that Empath will be bringing back from the past, is hopefully that. I think it becomes convenient to not say what you're feeling, or at least cloud it in metaphor, because then you don't offend anybody. Although what I do has very little to do with religion or politics, I also find that I have strayed from being like, "I feel THIS," so I think that what I'm getting from the music of Empath, even though there's some really complicated things and some really out-there moments, is emotionally it's a lot more direct than I've allowed myself to be in the past and I think that is a really good step.
SSUS: Well, as I said, I really look forward to hearing that, and thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
DT: No problem, buddy. Thanks for the interview; I'll talk to you soon. Cheers.
Note: In preparation for this interview, I was forced to update Skype and reset all my account settings. Up until that point, my Skype profile picture was a picture of Devin. That might have been weird. Thanks for updating, Skype.
||Posted on 17.06.2018 by I'm the reviewer, and that means my opinion is correct.|
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