Devin Townsend : the wisdom of the fool

“Wise” is not the first word that comes to mind when talking about Devin Townsend. All of us would have gone for adjectives like “eccentric”, “off the trolley”, or even plain old “crazy”. And it would only be legitimate, since his music is undeniably eccentric, in more than one respect.

Being the humble guy that he is, Devin Townsend could tell you himself: he’s like everybody else, and like everybody else, he sometimes has weird ideas. But unlike most, he welcomes them fully. Being crazy and having a strong taste for eccentricity are two different things – and Devin describes his own eccentricity as simple honesty. The problem is not that his honesty is on the margins of society; rather, it reminds us of the “craziness” that we all harbor and have been taught to refrain, or, more generally, of certain truths that we refuse to see. In this respect, Devin Townsend is not crazy. Nor is he incoherent, or even on the fringe.

More than anything, he’s extremely wise. It shows everywhere in this interview, and in all the other. His wisdom is in his restraint, in his refusal to acknowledge other people’s opinion (without disregarding it), and in his decision to seize the day and forget that everything could come to an end one of these days. And even that wasn’t always the case, because wisdom happens when we take into account the inherent instability of the human race.

« It’s so hard to get my hands in Dave Grohl’s bum sometimes! (Laughs) »

Radio Metal: The last time we spoke in 2011, you said that completing your tetralogy made you fill a void that you were hoping to fill with a hobby. Since then you’ve released a live DVD, your new album Epicloud and have been invited on some side projects such as Ihsahn’s new album. Do you really manage to find the time to have a hobby?

Devin Townsend: Well… No! (Laughs) I’ve been making music or doing whatever the hell that I do for so long that I just do it at this point: I wake up, see what needs be done and do it. I try to do only the things that I think are going to be enjoyable. When it comes to music projects, I just try to do what’s going to be fun. At the end of the year, I often say « Oh, shit! We’ve done a lot! » The intention is not the productivity of it all. We’re not trying to make a statement about how much we can get done. It just seems to end up that way.

If you had the time to have a hobby, what will it be?

Sleeping! (Laughs) I know it’s going to sound like a lame answer, but I love to play the guitar. The funny thing about doing what I do is that, even though I get to do it on stage or whatever, playing guitar is 5% of my life. The rest of my life, as a professional musician, has almost nothing to do with music: it’s emails, technical things and all these kinds of things. When I find I don’t have to work, the first thing I do is to play the guitar. I like to sit around and plunk away on guitar; I like amps, I like guitars. So I don’t know other than music what I would do. Something I’m interested in is nature and I like wood. I also don’t mind being involved in volunteer work. I like things that don’t end-up being about me when it comes to hobbies.

Epicloud has been released only a year after Deconstruction and Ghost. On the deluxe version of the album, there’s a second cd where there are so many songs that it could basically be a second album! How the hell do you manage to write songs so fast? What is your secret?

I try to practice writing and do this every day. If I have an idea, I try to finish it, so when the time comes to record an album, I have a ton of ideas. When you finish your ideas, whether or not they end up being the best song in the world, at least, it’s a song. So, when comes the time to provide some bonus material, I go to my computer and say “oh shit! I’ve got another twelve songs! You could put some overdubs on and people might want to hear them.” Again, the idea that I’m obsessively making music, although it may appear that way, it is not as much the case: as a musician, the business part, the emails and stuff, takes the most of my time. The recording and the playing is something that I don’t do often enough: when I do it, I try to capture it.

« The best quote I’ve ever heard the other day is: ‘What other people think of you is none of your business’. »

A lot of bands don’t release all the extra material they have and trash a part of it. It really looks like on your side that you’re releasing everything that you’re producing…

You know, I trash maybe more than you think! I wrote a bunch of stuff that isn’t that good. Well, there are people who think that most of my stuff is not that good. But for me, the material I release is the one I think people should or want to hear. But I do throw away a bunch of stuff too. Shit, I threw away a bunch of stuff for Epicloud!

You said about the Deconstruction album that it never took control of you. Do you still feel you’re in control of your artistic self, considering the fact that you’ve been writing music and releasing albums faster than ever?

Yes, I do. And more than ever. I think that I control my art and music better and more than ever. I think that controlling yourself, your mind, your art or whatever we’re talking about, it’s something you have to practice and eventually, you’ll get better at it. The things that define Deconstruction, whatever control I was implementing over that record, I’ve still been practicing it since Deconstruction. So I think I got even better at it. When people talk music and productivity, I came to the conclusion recently that music is the easiest part of my life. The rest of life is hard: kids, school, money, women, sex… That is difficult! But writing music? Fuck, man! I can do that for ever!

What are the economic repercussions of that intense rhythm on you? Is releasing albums very often something that is cost effective?

No, it’s not cost effective. It makes very little financial sense to do things the way I do. Actually, I don’t know what to tell you! (Laughs)

About Epicloud, you said that the album isn’t perfect but it’s what you needed to do. Were you artistically exhausted after completing your tetralogy?

Yes but I’m always exhausted! I’m forty, you know. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been exhausted, actually! I don’t see why this should stop me from making music, the exhaustion, you know what I mean? (Laughs) Again, making music is the one thing in my life that is easy and that I truly love. So if I’m exhausted because of life, I’ll still find some time to make music because this is what I want to do.

« I think that honesty, artistically, comes across as being a lot crazier to some people than dressing yourself up as elephants or whatever. »

Epicloud is your most pop-oriented album. Do you think that this could bring you commercial success? On the contrary, do you think that the fans will hate it that because they’ll miss your « out of your mind » side?

To answer the first part of the question: no, it’s not going to bring commercial success, of course not. I’m a 40 years old bold man, having a reputation of being crazy: that doesn’t sell for the kids! (Laughs) The reason why I did Epicloud is that I wanted to do a record like this. So far, it’s sold exactly the same as my other albums. In terms of the fans hating it because they miss the other things, dude I’ve got 25 records. This is one out of 25 records. The next record I’m doing is like a country record. So if people dislike this one, they’re going to fucking hate that next one! And then I’m doing a new Ziltoid too which contains some crazy music. The best quote I’ve ever heard the other day is: « What other people think of you is none of your business ».

You say that being crazy doesn’t sell, but some pop artists, like Lady Gaga sell a lot, although they have a reputation of being crazy.

Here’s the difference between Lady Gaga and me: she’s dressing herself up in meat and wear cigarette classes! People like that because it looks crazy. She’s not crazy: she’s a great business woman and a very talented person. When I say crazy about myself, I’m referring to when I find people being uncomfortable with what they think is being crazy, when, in my opinion, it’s just telling the truth about certain things. Whether or not that truth means that “I’m not going to play with Strapping Young Lad because it doesn’t work for me” or “I know you like this but I’m going to do this because this where I’m going in life.” I think that honesty, artistically, comes across as being a lot crazier to some people than dressing yourself up as elephants or whatever. For instance, when people ask me the reason why I wrote a song like this, I’m always honest in my explanations, but people are often uncomfortable with them because this is not what I should be saying. I suck at selling myself! (Laughs) From an outsider point of view, when I say crazy, it’s looking like the type of man who people don’t understand. However, do I think I’m crazy? Fuck no, man! (Laughs) I’m as sane as I possibly can imagine myself being at this point. You have to play with the card your dealt, I guess.

So you do think that everything Lady Gaga does is carefully thought?

I don’t know her enough to make that assumption. But her music doesn’t change: it’s her image that changes. It’s always a very sellable music. It’s got a hundred and twenty eight beats per minutes, a kick drum on every beat and a big sort of nursery rhyme melody that has a minor key change in it. The production is high tech and it’s great. All the time that she’s doing things that are perceived as being crazy, that thing that you can turn up on the dance floor doesn’t change. Personally, I don’t think she’s crazy, of course not. I think she’s a very mindful artistic business woman. It doesn’t mean she’s not an artist. But sure, yeah, I think she’s a business woman.

« In the past, a lot of how I dealt with love would be followed by some sort of destruction, because it’s like a sabotage thing: ‘I love you but you’re going to go away! So fuck you!’. »

You give the impression of progressively adding more and more vocal layers and choirs to your music: it’s evident on Epicloud and it was already the case on Deconstruction. Could it be that you’re having a growing fascination for others, or at least the multiplicity that the others represent, as opposed to that time when your were maybe too much fascinated by yourself or even afraid of yourself?

Well… (long hesitation) Yeah… I’m still afraid of myself, I guess, but not as much as I’ve used to. I like the concept of vocal layers and I think that with Epicloud, it was important for me to point out that I’ve realised how much this wall of sound had become synonymous to my music. It is a sort of trademark, in a certain way. But I’m getting bored of it, you know. I’m not interested in it in the same was as I used to be. The sort of country music project that I’m currently working on doesn’t have all of that, but before changing, I wanted, on Epicloud, to put all the pieces of my music in one place : the echoing guitars, the vocal layers, the wall of sound… Epicloud represents all of that. So, as much as it may appear like it’s becoming more and more and more – which, who knows, it may continue to be – it was consciously me trying to put all the pieces together before doing something a little bit different.

In the past, when you talked about love or positive feelings, it was often followed by destruction. For example, the Strapping Young Lad song called « Love? » or the beginning of “Praise The Lowered” on Deconstruction that feels very soothing before everything go wrong. On the contrary, with Epicloud, it feels like love and positive feelings are all we get without ulterior motive. Have you been missing these naïve but reassuring love and positive feelings in general?

Absolutely. Love, in itself, is where a lot of fear comes from: in order to express love and naivety in these sorts of emotions, you have to be vulnerable. Essentially, by accepting the fact that you love something, you also accept the fact that it can go way, that it’s going to die, that it’s going to leave you. Often, it is easier to deny feelings of love, because that way, the hurt you’ll feel the day it goes away will be less more. In the past, a lot of how I dealt with love would be followed by some sort of destruction, because it’s like a sabotage thing: “I love you but you’re going to go away! So fuck you!” It kind of came to the point where I’m just tired and just say: “I love you, great!” Of course I know that everything changes, of course we all die, of course everything goes away, but to not accept that and constantly fight against yourself about why we’re here and why we’re still alive, it just seems like a waste of time and energy. That being said, the next music I’m writing is super destructive, so maybe it’s just the pattern you talked about expressed record to record as opposed to being in one song. Who knows!

« I’ve got no problem with choice because I’ve made the choice to follow whatever direction comes. »

The luminous side of Epicloud can be compared to Addicted and Anneke Van Giersbergen was also very present on it. It really looks like both of you have a common vision about positive music, since you call her every time you want to do an album like that.

It’s true. One of the reasons why I love working with her, is that Anneke has a similar point of view in terms of music and spirituality. We recognized that within each other early on. Whenever I feel I need to make that sort of a statement, of course she’s the first person who comes into my mind. I love female vocals, so I try to have female singers on every album I make. A lot of the time, when I write music, I have female vocals in my mind. However, Anneke wouldn’t necessarily be, in my mind, the ideal fit for really dark music because this not the kind of energy I get from the sound of her voice. But if I write music like on Epicloud, for example the line “I Love You, I Need You, etc.”, I’m thinking: “Anneke, where are you?!”

On Epicloud you rerecorded the song “Kingdom” from The Physicist. Do you actually see a link between Epicloud and that album?

Obviously, one of the main links is that Kingdom has been redone. Other than that, The Physicist was done at a moment when I wanted to do a heavy metal pop record: but it was hard to achieve that goal at the time. The fact that “Kingdom” has been recorded again and that both records started as being a sort of commercial version of heavy music, based on my love of commercial music, gives them some similarities. But in terms of emotion, they are almost polar opposites.

Why this song in particular?

When I wrote Kingdom, it was an apology to some shitty things I had done to people and especially to my wife. Fifteen years later, one day, we ended up live playing this song and I realised that the lyrics could have another meaning: it was more like an affirmation by putting a period at the end of the sentence. So, for me, it seemed like an appropriate move to redo that song and have it come across a little bit more as an affirmation as opposed to an open-headed apology from fifteen years ago. Plus man, I think the original version sounds like shit! So, to do it again sounded like a great idea to me! (Laughs)

The four albums which compose your tetralogy respond to each other, especially Ghost and Deconstruction, but Epicloud is also a response to it. We also did hear you talk about another album called Casualties that would be a response to Epicloud. It really looks like all your albums are linked, just like they were parts of a big musical puzzle.

Absolutely. I wish I was smart enough to have seen those links ahead of time, because that would have made me seem like I was doing it on purpose. But they are linked because I don’t know any another way to write: the seeds of one album are planted in the soil of the prior one. When you take a look at all my records I’ve done, you can actually see a picture of all my emotional life for the past twenty years. It wasn’t unintentional, but it’s how I write and what I find interesting to write about.

It seems that every time you write a record, you feel the need to write the opposite one, musically speaking. Where does that pattern come from? Do you have any trouble with the idea of choice, like choosing a direction and following it for a moment?

I’ve got no problem with choice because I’ve made the choice to follow whatever direction comes. (Laughs) My choices are not stylistic: I can do heavy metal or play some country, it doesn’t really matter. I guess that I’ve committed myself to always follow my muse, if I can say, and it’s present in exactly the same way in every record: the person who wrote Alien and City is the same person who wrote Ghost and Epicloud. I can hear that person in there. In that sense, nothing ever changes, only the shoes or the colour of the shirt change, but not myself. The ecstatic or artistic side is not a big deal to me. The reason why I write immediately after finishing a record is simply the love of writing music.

« I love the idea of working with people who have the potential of doing anything but choose not to do it. I don’t know what it is that I like about it but I like that restrain. »

Will the songs that were written for a Ghost 2 album see the light of day?

Maybe. The problem with Ghost 2 is that my record label told me to hang on for a moment and release it later. But then I lost interest in it because the things that inspired Ghost and Ghost 2 turned to be Deconstruction or Epicloud. I have nine or ten songs for Ghost 2 but will I find the patience and the drive to do them the way they should be, I don’t know. Who knows?

You’ve said that your label told you that you should release Ghost 2 later, just like they’ve convinced you that it wouldn’t be a good idea to release Epicloud as a double album. Do you think that without the advice of your record label, you would be doing things with your music and your career that you could regret? Do you need to be slowed down?

Ohhhhhh… I don’t think I need to be slowed down. It’s probably in their benefit! (Laughs)

You said that the female singer that we can hear on Ghost is a friend of yours and isn’t a singer. Do you think however that she’ll be encouraged to continue singing, considering the positive comments on her voice?

Katrina is a friend of mine. I haven’t seen her since the recording of the record. I love her voice: it’s absolutely beautiful. We’re not in contact, so all hope is that she continues to sing because I think her voice is magical.

What are your plans now? Can you tell us more about the Casualties album and the next Ziltoid album?

Well I’m currently working on both. Casualties is first. It’s a ten song record with very quiet, very dark country, folk music, a sort of Johnny Cash style. That record is a really important part of my world. Casualties is something that I’ve been very close to, because it has no “wall of sound” on it. I’ve got this drummer who’s playing on it, Morgan Agren, he’s an absolutely brilliant drummer: he used to play with Frank Zappa, he played with Fredrik Thordendal on his Special Defect record, etc. He’s one of the world’s best drummers, but what he’s playing on Casualties contains probably some of the easiest drumming ever written. (Laughs) I love that. I love the idea of working with people who have the potential of doing anything but choose not to do it. I don’t know what it is that I like about it but I like that restrain. And then, Z2, the second Ziltoid album, is probably about a year or a year and a half away. It’s going to be awesome: it’s like an audio-movie. I’m going to try to make a movie with it and new puppets. It’s a super weird, nerdy, sci-fi progressive-rock concept.

Ziltoid is obsessed with coffee. Can you tell us more about your relationship with coffee?

Well, I’ve been drinking coffee since we began talking. I drink it black. It’s a very benign sort of drug that I guess I’m addicted to. Mornings are not as nice without it! (Laughs)

Dave Grohl, from the Foo Fighters is also a coffee addict. Have you ever thought of calling him to work with him on Ziltoid?

Well, dude, I can’t say I’m a complete addict: I have three little mugs full of coffee in the morning and then soft drinks. But in terms on phoning to Dave Grohl and ask him if he wants to play on my record, I don’t really think it works that way! (Laughs) Could you imagine the scene? I take the phone book, find Dave Grohl’s number, call him and say “Dave! You don’t know me but you have to play on my record because we both like coffee!” (Laughs)

Maybe Ziltoid is Dave Grohl! (Laughs)

Maybe! Maybe he’s in disguise! (Laughs) It’s so hard to get my hands in Dave Grohl’s bum sometimes! (Laughs)

You’ve got a show called “Retinal Circus”: could you tell us more about it ?

It’s a shitload of work! It’s a 3 hour retrospective of my career. It happens in twenty days and I’ve got no idea how to prepare myself for it yet! (Laughs)

Interview conducted by phone on October, 3rd, 2012 by Spaceman and Metal’O Phil
Transcription: Jean Martinez – Traduction(s) Net

Devin Townsend’s official website: www.hevydevy.com

Album Epicloud already released via Hevy Devy Records/InsideOut Music

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