Devin Townsend is a behemoth of an artist. Part technical virtuoso, part musical shaman, the man is a faucet of musical talent that seemingly never turns of the tap. From his early days with Steve Vai to the heaviness of Strapping Young Lad and the progressive genius of the Devin Townsend Project to the interstellar pysch-folk of Casualties of Cool, Townsend has hit all the right notes.
Townsend is an artist that does what he feels like doing when he feels like doing it. That much has been well proven with the recent hiatus of his most recent band, the Devin Townsend Project. The hiatus is partially due to an ambitious slew of work that the musician has undertaken, and he’s fed his active Twitter audience with updates in near-real time. According to tweets, he has as many as four different projects in the works, all in various styles and configurations. In fact, he’s gone as far as reveal to his audience that he’s working on 100 different songs in a variety of styles. Most revelatory for his longtime die-hard fans is that he’s also described this transition period as having parallels to the time between the end of Strapping Young Lad and his first Devin Townsend Project album Ki.
The last few years Townsend has been spinning inside constant tornado of music. His Casualties of Cool project with past collaborator Ché Aimee Dorval is among his most impressive works, and it appears the duo is working on a follow-up to their mxdwn 2016 Album of the Year-topping debut. One of the four albums he has discussed, Empath, is likely to be released in March 2019 and he’s even spoke of a new Ziltoid EP. The prolific writer has continued pushing the envelope, until its just not an envelope anymore, it becomes something else completely within his universe through a state of osmosis. At this point in his career, Townsend can do anything he wants — and he should.
Devin Townsend spoke with mxdwn recently and it was striking at the thought that went into every question he was asked. Townsend approached each inquiry with a self-aware, philosophical tone that was completely honest about where he is in his life right now. Among the topics of discussion were the many projects he has in the works, including his long-awaited Empath album, the 20th anniversary of Ocean Machine: Biomech recently recorded with the Plovdiv Orchestra and why his musical career took a dramatic turn after working with Steve Vai.
mxdwn: You tweeted something a while back that was very interesting along the lines of “looking to use your guitar as a voice as well as a tool.” Can you shed some light on that perspective and how that translates across the work you’re doing now?
Devin Townsend: I think anybody that does art professionally, there is a tendency to fetish-ize the tools. I think it’s a subconscious thing that happens and you don’t realize that you are doing it. The easiest way to describe that is — If you pick up a guitar and start playing, if you are thinking of it in terms of the technique, it’s really the equivalent of talking shit. There are these six or seven boxes that you’re familiar with and the things that you practice. You pick up the guitar, start going through the scales and those patterns that you know do certain things that are gratifying.
When you pick up the guitar, you use all that knowledge you’ve learned to sort of say things that are accurate to where you are at as an entity. I think that it sneaks up on you, like “Oh wow I’m doing that, that’s great.” And then what is coming out of the guitar is really important in terms of who you are, and all the technique that you learned is there on tap to facilitate wherever that dialogue wants to go. That’s when you start using it as a voice and that’s when really interesting music starts coming in. All of a sudden it becomes a real extension of you as opposed to just mindlessly playing these licks and shapes.
It’s not on tap though. And that’s what I find really interesting about it. Sometimes when I pick up a guitar… the mindset you have to be in when you want to actually say something with the guitar as opposed to just randomly talk is very specific. But it’s something that is worth pursuing. Finding ways to coax that connection to the instrument in the forefront of your mind rather than just existing as a reservoir that you can access now and then. I find a lot of that, for me, is just holding the guitar when I’m watching TV or wandering around with it and playing haphazardly. The less I think about it, the more the vocal quality becomes second nature, and I’ve missed it, and I’m really happy that it’s coming back.
mxdwn: You disbanded the Devin Townsend Project, but you also mentioned that you have at least four projects in the works with one of them being an album called Empath, that you recently tweeted was still a work in progress. Is that album going through as a Devin Townsend Project record or has it become something different?
DT: Every day that goes by it starts to galvanize a little more. As with everything that I’ve done, I tend to just work on autopilot, and then the theme will present itself, and it normally does just present itself through as much or as little stress as I put on finding that goal it will subconsciously grow either way. I think that the stage that I am at with Empath… There’s four really distinct styles that are present. What I think would be easiest would just be to do four more records how the Devin Townsend Project was with Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost. But also, because I just went through a very singular period in my career with Devin Townsend Project, how developed it was, the idea of just repeating that again, doesn’t seem to be in line with what the motivations point me towards. At this point I’m kind of stuck, meaning… should I just put out a really big, bloated project that’s called Empath that incorporates elements of all these things?
If my current lifestyle is anything to go by, that’s really what is going on. There are a lot of things happening all at one time. And there are a lot of emotions going around at the same time. Maybe that’s the appropriate thing. I’m also concerned that my desire to do that is rooted in wanting to be everything to everybody straight out of the gate. Now there are eyes on it,maybe I’m afraid that in choosing that one thing and committing to that… it’s more diplomatic to do them all at the same time. If that is what it comes down to, then that’s not the right motivation. Currently it’s unclear and I’m just poking away at it every day. I have until the end of November to deliver it, so I better get to it.
mxdwn: You also hinted at a couple of other projects including The Moth and one called Thank You. Do those projects have any bearing on Empath, or are those separate recordings?
DT: The fortunate part of it is that I have so much music written and recorded, but no one album yet. Luckily, I have time, I have two-thirds of several albums written. Even though two-thirds are kind of unfinished, even though the full songs are demoed, a lot of them I listen too are — “Well, this part of the song doesn’t make sense to me right now. This area here, it just doesn’t make sense to me.” It’s the same process that I have used to write everything for the last while. It’s the same thing I’ve been doing with this glut of material.
Because my life has changes so much again, as it does, there is also a part of me that is feeling like my process has also changed in some fundamental way that I’m having a hard time identifying right now. I get together with other musicians, producers and virtuoso players, and try to get their input. It seems that that’s not even what I am looking for either. I’m looking for some penny to drop in its own sweet time. So, I need to keep writing in the meantime.
It’s all really good though, the material that has come out is really fascinating for me. In a lot of ways, it is the most developed material that I have ever written. At the same time, the trajectory isn’t there, and that’s usually one of the things that comes first with an album for me. Look at Ki, after a little bit of fucking around, there got to a point where I found the identity and could point to it. The songs “Coast” and “Gato,” those 2 songs really quickly encapsulated the emotional things that I was trying to achieve for the record, so I just had to follow those trajectories. And with Empath, I think I have something, I write some 12-minute-long prog-thing, and I think, well… that’s what it is… so what I need to do is write another song like that one. So, then I’ll sit down to write another song, and it comes out as a super mellow thing…. And then I think that there’s a mellow component to it. And then the next day I sit down to write and out comes a super-pop thing. And then I write a death metal thing, and each thing is so unto itself that I guess in a sense, I am hoping that somewhere in there, I will come out with nine more pop songs, or nine more death metal songs, or nine more prog songs and in that way, I can really say “Well. That’s what it is.” But none of those things are checking all the boxes. So, what I’m wondering is if that is just the nature of the project. Maybe it’s right in front of me and I’m just missing it because it’s buried. I’m really enjoying the process and it’s always been this way, I just have to let it sort itself out.
mxdwn: It’s almost like a self-case-study of your subconscious.
DT: Oh, yeah… That’s what it’s all about. When you’re finished, look back on your work and have some sort of cross-section of the psychology that was prevalent at the time. I think that it’s always been very frustrating for me that I can’t see the forest for the trees. While I’m in it, I don’t know what it is. But when I’m finished, you can point to it and understand that it was clear. But, this one is different from all of the others so far because there’s not one identity, it’s many identities and that’s interesting for sure… and it’s really colorful too, but it’s hard to do my thing that I’ve always done on it, other than just relentlessly produce music.
mxdwn: Ocean Machine: Biomech turned 20 in 2017, and to celebrate you did a live recording with the Plovdiv Orchestra. How did you approach working alongside a full orchestra, and will there be more of that in the future?
DT: There’s a really big orchestral element to the work that has really started to develop on Empath — there’s a ton of it. What I learned about the Plovdiv thing was in order to make it work financially, I had to surrender a lot of the arranging tasks to the director of the orchestra, and… I guess there are a couple of things that happened with that. First, I insisted we use my arrangements for “Truth” as well as a couple of other things. But, I guess, they weren’t getting paid enough for me to bring the gavel down in terms of specific orchestration. I think that we did a really good job, but what I also realize that by trying to crowbar another 75 elements into music that is already dense as shit, it’s like…. a really combative environment where the orchestra is fighting for space, the samples are fighting for space, and vocals, guitars, drums, everything is louder than everything else.
After that experience, I realized that moving forward with orchestral work, I have to work it into the arrangements from the beginning. You have to compensate for the sheer real estate that an orchestra takes up, early in the compositional stage, because if you do it the way that we did it at Plovdiv… It’s like trying to fit five fat people through a door simultaneously. It just doesn’t work. If there’s anything I can take from my career in general, all of these things are huge opportunities for me to learn how to do it better, because my goals of making these massive musical statements are still very much alight. I learned a great deal from that experience.
The wall, of sound, is something that only gets built by circumstance. I’m trying to see if maybe in the future, there are ways that I can make one thing a feature amidst that wall a little more. The only way you are going to learn how to do that is just by these sorts of experiences and I was really thankful for it.
mxdwn: In that same vein, now that the Devin Townsend Project has been put on hiatus, have you thought about more live performances and who you might be playing with?
DT: I need to be thinking about that for next March. There’s a lot of options, there are a lot of people that have come out of the woodwork and want to play, and that’s all great, but I am also admittedly hesitant to jump back into relationships with people. If there’s anything that I learned from the dissolving of the Devin Townsend Project is that as much as I enjoy the social elements of being together with a consistent group of people, that also brings with it over time some social engineering problems that I really resent.
What I think I had to make peace with is that when I do go out again, it’s probably going to be easier for me in the long run to just hire people in different territories to do different things. That opens some interesting possibilities as well. Sure, I could hire another band, but then what’s the point of having dissolved Devin Townsend Project in the first place if you’re just jumping into a new one? I know that my work and one of the main reasons that I dissolved the band was that there are a lot of things that I want to do that people are going to be really challenged to do accurately. So, maybe in light of that, maybe a cool way to pursue live performances from this point on would be to look at each tour as being a specific thing. Maybe this is the Synchestra tour? Or, maybe the Ki tour, or whatever. And for the encore, we can play things that people want to see in a normal set, but use different players to really represent different periods of my work. Each one of those periods was super specific. It might be a real benefit to shake it up and make each situation I do unique. But one thing at a time, I still need to figure out the trajectory of Empath.
mxdwn: Do you have any new Casualties of Cool in the works?
DT: How I typically work is, way far ahead of any musical goals, I start working on artwork and plucking around on ideas, jamming out ideas. I’ve got this really interesting thing I’ve been working on with Ché Aimee Dorval that poses a theme for the record, and maybe three or four songs between us that we’ve been working on that really could be something cool, but it’s not defined yet in that sense either. As much as there are sparks for that genesis of the new album, there’s nothing really that has held me to stop, drop and roll with it.
Che sang on Ki, she sang a bit on Transcendence but the relationships that I have with people are what define how, where and why the music come together. Ché and I have known each other a long time now and we’ve gotten quite close in terms of being friends and co-artists. As is the case with every record that I do, I wait for something to compel me. Even though there may be 20 songs that I have written for that particular piece of work, until such time that that one thing, that lightning bolt that says… “This is what this about and because you have been able to stumble upon it musically, it now make sense to all these other areas of your life.” With Casualties of Cool I remember working on the riff for “Daddy,” and it really suited the car I was driving at the time, it really suited the weather that was happening at the time. I always wanted to hear it. I would put it on and because I wanted to hear it, it would spur other ideas and before you know it another song, and another song and even right now, there is so much music and when I put it on, I am very aware of the quality of it. But I don’t have the compulsion yet, for any of it.
To be honest, I have 40 songs written and demoed and there’s some of the best stuff that I have done, so it’s a bit confusing to me as well. How come that identity hasn’t presented itself? But I think that there is something hidden in there for me. I think what is defining this particular period of work includes that. It includes that sense that it’s not everything all the time. It’s an interesting period.
mxdwn: What was it like coming up as a musician in British Columbia, and how did you get your start making music?
DT: There was a lot of pivotal moments through family situations or music that I heard that inspired me, but there was never a moment where I could recall that I realized that this was going to be my life’s path — I am going to become a musician and I’m gonna play big shows. That never happened. In fact, growing up in Vancouver, there was a scene here, like any other city and there are pros and cons that come with that. I left so early — I went to LA when I was 19 — that I kind of missed out on a lot of the growing pains that fellow musicians back here had.
And maybe the fact that I never made a conscious decision to be a musician was because I never questioned it, this was just what I did. This is who I am. So often times I was confused because it wasn’t happening, because music is just what I do. I’m thinking more about the logistics of it now, than just the thrill of it. I’ve also learned to really participate in the experience and I think that when I was younger there was a real heavy dose of narcissism that went into what I did that propelled it in a really cool way, but also, if my whole trip is rooted in the relationship I’ve built with people, to come into a relationship with such an inflated sense of self-importance… it doesn’t make much sense. It’s been a real long path for me recognizing where my strengths and weaknesses were.
mxdwn: You worked with Steve Vai on Sex and Religion, and found success with that particular moment, but after that moment you pushed your career in a different direction and took it somewhere completely different, what was the mindset of that success and then moving away from it?
DT: The ways that it has manifested, morphed and grown are allowing yourself to be confident enough in your decisions and trusting yourself to roll with those decisions that you don’t analyze it. Meaning it was a very conscious decision that I made to go anyway. It was more or less, one thing leads to another, and every decision that I’ve made creatively has offered feelings of being hung up on it that I just get sick of it, or this internal compass that has to point north. Right now, we are northeast and I have to swing the bow back so its pointing in that direction. That results in the music you hear along the way.
I think that I’d be lying if I said that anything that I’ve done has been particularly conscious. I just react. And that sort of reaction has defined everything that I’ve done to that point that even though it’s something that’s different like Casualties of Cool or Ghost or something else, my impression of the people that listen to that stuff is very aware, because that was what I was compelled to do, I wasn’t trying to be provocative about it
mxdwn: What are your thoughts on the current musical landscape, and are there any artists that you are currently really into?
DT: There are artists that I really enjoy. Spotify has really helped with that with the discover function. It takes into account the things that you have listened to, and suggests others. But my listening habits have become rather peculiar over the years because I tend to listen to things that don’t impose themselves on me at all. Often spa-type ambiance or dark ambiance, or something like that, usually without vocals. So, my favorite artists are usually something I just found on Spotify that I just cycle through once a month. It’s really no one that you’ve heard of, I just know the album covers based on the discovery function. I think that also your connection to music changes as you get older. My need to have a band that I just am obsessed with doesn’t play a big part in my life anymore.
All Photos: Raymond Flotat
Contributions from Matt Matasci