Devin Townsend: Out Of This World
30 records deep into an utterly exhausting career, Devin Townsend is nothing if not prolific. BLUNT chats with Hevy Devy ahead of his intimate guitar clinics here next month.
Way back in 2009, Devin Townsend emerged from his hiatus in the mountains of Canada under a new musical moniker, The Devin Townsend Project. Free of drugs, alcohol and his trademark Skullet, he set off on a journey that would ultimately result in five DTP albums, a second side project, and – come October – a follow-up to his 2007 theatrical metal masterpiece, Ziltoid The Omniscient, simply titled Z². It’s been a long and often exhausting road for Townsend, packed with everything from flute-fronted new age records to balls-out prog metal madness. Come April next year, Townsend has announced plans to take another well-earned rest.
Of course this isn’t the end of Hevy Devy, but nevertheless he’s determined to go out with a bang. With just over six months to go, Townsend’s packed in a bunch of tour dates, including a handful of guitar clinics in Australia… well, guitar clinics in the loosest sense of the term anyway. You see, Townsend’s classes aren’t exactly conventional.
“I tend to not go to guitar clinics because it’s just a dude wanking then talking quietly between the wanks about how he wanks,” he explains sincerely. “What I do is play throughout, then just offer people the opportunity to ask questions and take it as far as we want to go, these things are crazy.”
At first glance this seems like a jaded attempt to buck said guitar clinic wankery, but Townsend is a rare breed. For him, music is something that needs to come from a truthful place whether he’s recording an album or playing in front of an audience, and these guitar clinics are another avenue for presenting something honest, but also practical.
“I love to teach people, I think that’s something I’d be really good at and I’ve got so many experiences to draw from and so many failures too,” he says. “I have a career, strangely, and it’s making peculiar music which started with nothing, you know it took me years to get Strapping Young Lad and everything else going. I’ve made 30 odd records in my career… and have accumulated a ton of techniques that have solved problems people are inevitably going to come across.”
Whether it stems from his love of guitar or an intense workaholism that’s supposedly the result of his four-inch penis, the only way to describe Townsend’s output is prolific. Without the pressures of Strapping Young Lad and self-medication directing his decisions, he was free to wander down any musical path that felt natural. Naturally this demanded much personal introspection, but Townsend also took the opportunity to set a few things straight.
“I wanted to clarify a lot of shit that I said when I was stoned in the past, because I think that you run into a situation artistically where you think you’re not accountable for anything you say, but you’re accountable for everything you say artistically,” he explains in earnest. “Any interpretations otherwise are your own trip, so I used the Devin Townsend Project to clarify things I’d said on Infinity or Alien because dude, I was blasted and said a bunch of stuff that confused not only me, but other people.”
Since then the DTP has taken Townsend across the world and seemingly helped him find a different kind of conviction in his songwriting. Everything from the progressive metal bedlam of Deconstruction to the more recent journey through cosmos country in Casualties Of Cool has marked a point of heartfelt expression. Rather than fight it, Townsend simply let the music flow, reasoning that if something wanted to come out, he was the vessel to bring it to the stage. But in doing so he often discovered, or rediscovered, aspects of his creative personality that were lying dormant.
“It’s funny because we were in Europe doing the first series of Casualties shows, [and] by the time we got to the third show, working the bugs out of everything, it was one of the greatest live experiences I’ve ever had,” he says with notable enthusiasm. “I think there’s an element of improv that I really, really miss and crave in music, my work has become so heavily structured with computers, visuals and choreography, that being in a position where the music and interactions between the members can go in multiple directions was just really inspiring.”
Teaming up with vocalist/guitarist Ché Dorval and drummer Morgan Ågren, Townsend took a sidestep out of the spotlight by handing the lead to Dorval while he sang along and played supporting roles. He made it quite clear that this was a new project unrelated to DTP, and from the moment it touched down in the home of his fans, people knew why. Unlike anything of his other records, Casualties Of Cool was a grand adventure to the outer reaches of the universe, on a locomotive powered by carefree space-infused country rock’n’roll.
“It was written carefree, but the production of it, I had such a specific vision in mind and up to that point I was still on my own,” he says. “I mean Ché and Morgan were involved with it, but I had the mind’s eye that I wasn’t able to articulate to anybody until they heard it. I realised that if and when there’s another Casualties record, I think it will be substantially different, a lot less controlled, a lot less uptight in terms of the production.”
Funded largely by a pledge campaign that reached almost 550% of its goal, working with an entirely independent band gave Townsend the chance to scratch an itch he didn’t really know was there. It opened up a new creative outlet that he now seems more than happy to settle into.
“The first Casualties record was not only one of my favourite things I’ve ever done, but it’s also just the beginning,” Townsend says, with a sort of proud enthusiasm. “My guitar fetishism, because I love the instrument so much, I do a ton of things of in terms of heavy guitar, effects and digital stuff, but my love for guitar is single coil pickups, a clean guitar sound on the verge of breaking up and using the single sound that you’re given to articulate a bunch of ideas. From here I love the idea of writing with people, be it Casualties or some other musicians that I know,” he continues. “Hopefully on the next record we can maybe do it live with a producer, and I can step out of that role to just focus on my guitar playing, because that’s the type of playing I really enjoy. Perhaps that’s what the first Causalities record’s sole purpose was, to allow me to recognise that that’s something I need.”
Although technically a multi-instrumentalist, the guitar is Townsend’s first port of call on most projects, and it’s one that comes to the forefront on his final release for the year – Z². Spanning two disks in one package, part one, titled Sky Blue, is typical DTP and technically his third album of 2014. The second half, Dark Matters, is all Ziltoid – a grandiose, cinematic epic that explodes across all forms of media including all new scary-looking puppets, radio, web-TV and a 2000-strong universal choir created with the help of fans across the world.
“The project of Ziltoid happened two weeks after Casualties, it was directly on the heels of that,” he tells us. “There was the pledge drive that needed to be finished, there was the need to provide the powers that be with more of the Devin Townsend Project sound in order for them to really want to put the money into the Ziltoid side of things. Then I’d committed to this DTP thing and I knew I couldn’t just make another version of Epicloud that wasn’t as good.”
As the two albums rolled on, Townsend was gearing up to head out and promote Casualties, which mentally couldn’t have been more further removed from the headspace required for Z². Pressures started to build up, as he began to question whether he had enough energy to see the project through to the end.
“All of a sudden there were people dropping off around me like flies, people are dying everywhere, so I started taking that for my inspiration,” he explains. “It was summer, the kids were out of school, we were on tour, dude there were so many points making Z² where I thought, ‘I’m going to lose it, I’m done, I can’t do this’. The whole project became this war between Ziltoid, DTP and myself.”
Just recounting the story is enough to add a slightly tense tone to Townsend’s voice, but he continues, seemingly aware that Z² was simply something that needed to come out. It’s this conviction that in many ways defines Townsend’s music, but such an approach requires some serious emotional, mental and physical exertion that would make almost anyone else turn and walk away.
“The problem is I can’t just phone it in, I can’t just put out a bunch of heavy metal and pop songs. Unless it’s coming from a place of authenticity within my own sphere of existence, it’s not going to mean shit to anybody,” he says with emphasis. “But it does, it came from a place that was really vital for me. Ziltoid and all this stuff, the pledge drive, the universal choir and all this shit, apparently I had a bunch of purging to do, and I did it.”
It’s another beautifully honest moment for Townsend, but he can’t help but mix these sentiments with a touch of humour when describing his emotional investment in the record: “It’s like, ‘So where do you want to visit today? How about profound anxiety? Great! We’ll put a bunch of farting aliens on it too’,” he laughs. “The only real pressure I think, if I’m going to be honest about it here… I’ve got kids now, and not only my kids but other kids that are in my world, anybody who has kids knows that if you have kids, you have multiple kids, kids get friends etc,” he explains, taking his time to consider each word. “There’s a lot of people that say they’ve got a seven-year-old that loves Ziltoid or a 10-year-old that walks around the house with a Ziltoid doll. Then parents ask what the next Ziltoid record is about and it’s like, ‘Well, Ziltoid says cunt a lot, he’s a total arsehole and he blows up the world’,” he continues while chuckling at the idea. “So the pressure came from me thinking about how I was going to satisfy my own need to make Ziltoid a representation of me, but still make it something that kids would like.”
So where does a man who once stood before a crowd and confidently declared that the suit he was performing in smelled “like 1,000 balls” find words that could appeal to younger generations? “I asked kids,” he admits. “Not only my kids but other kids, cousins and my friends’ kids: ‘What would happen now in the story? What happens now with Ziltoid?’” There’s a brief moment where Townsend uncharacteristically stops, trying to find the right way to explain that Z² was partially penned by pre-teens. It’s not long before he lets the cat out of the bag. “So a lot of the story was written by 10-year-olds and I just put crazy music over the top with orchestras,” he laughs.
So now that the DTP is well and truly established, with so many records and miles on the road, you have to wonder whether things really did go the way Townsend hoped. After all, he did set out with a definitive goal to clarify his past. “Have I achieved that now? Yeah, in my own mind I have,” he says. “Does that mean that other people aren’t confused by what I do? Well I mean, that’s not really my problem at this point because I think I’m being true to my own world here, and Z² is a way to really encapsulate that.”
Is the DTP ending? Not necessarily, just think of this break period as a bookend. Perhaps the most intriguing part is that no one seems to know where Townsend will end up next. After all, who could’ve predicted that a man who once spent his days screaming for Strapping would start writing new age records. Wherever it is, we can at least be certain that Townsend will certainly return.
“With my [new] Ziltoid thing, I kind of summarised a lot of what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years, so who knows what’s happening for me next,” he explains. “I might be plunking away in a field somewhere on an acoustic guitar playing shitty hippy music or something. I’ve got enough ammunition for it to go in any direction, so I think what I need to do is surf with it for a little bit and see what happens.”
Devin Townsend Guitar Clinic Dates
Mon Oct 20th – 7.30pm – Princess Theatre, Brisbane
Tue Oct 21st – 7.30pm – Paddington Town Hall, Sydney
Wed Oct 22nd – 7.30pm – St Kilda Town Hall, Melbourne
Thu Oct 23rd – 7.30pm – The Gov, Adelaide
Sat Oct 25th – 12pm – John Inverarity Theatre, Hale School, Perth
More information and tickets from thumpmusic.com.au