INTERVIEW: Devin Townsend

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Devin Townsend first came to the world’s attention via guitar hero Steve Vai in 1993. Vai, usually known as an instrumental artist, wanted a vocalist for his Sex & Religion album. All the demos the label sent over were from real pretty, safe-sounding singers. Vai was despondent. Then Devin Townsend’s demo landed on his desk. Today “hard rock vocalist for hire” is the last thing Townsend’s name makes us think of. Terms like ‘Heavy Metal Auteur’ and ‘Progressive Iconoclast’ are considered more apt. His latest opus, the Devin Townsend Project, took in four albums and was recently capped off with a huge box set and a four-night live run where each album was performed and filmed for an upcoming DVD.

“I came away from it feeling that I had purged something that was holding me back,” Townsend says of the four night stand. “There’s a freedom to writing music that I think I had lost somewhere along the way when there were expectations that came into the picture, with Strapping or the Devin Townsend Band. So getting away from music for a while and allowing myself to reconnect with the things about music that are important to me, and my love for it, allowed me to realise that through a lot of my hang-ups I’d ceased to allow myself that freedom. And doing these four records, it was like the sky is the limit, in a lot of ways now.”

Next for Townsend is Epicloud, to be followed by Z2 (Ziltoid Squared), the sequel to his first post-Strapping release, 2007’s Ziltoid The Omniscient – the tale of an inter-dimensional, coffee-guzzling, axe-shredding alien intent on wiping out the fucking earth because of bad coffee and proving he’s the ultimate guitar hero. Townsend saysEpicloud essentially serves as a bridge to Z2, which he says will be “…the biggest thing I’ve ever done. Epicloud is very much a reaction to the complexity ofDeconstruction. What it is is a very awesome, epic hard rock record without that depth of metaphor, that overt complexity for complexity’s sake. It’s a bunch of really cool songs that I really like listening to that go well with summer.” A similar description could be applied to Addicted!, the second album of the DTP tetralogy. “The thing I had a problem with with Addicted! is, if I was to refine it I think that without the contrast of a bit of melancholy it loses some of that impact and has the potential of becoming delusional, in that sense of everything being awesome all the time. Because it isn’t! And it’s like, when I was doing Addicted!, I wanted to make a record where every song is like, “It’s awesome!” That’s why all the titles have exclamation marks. Like, this is living, y’know what I mean? But when it was done I remember thinking, “But it isn’t!” There are elements of life that really are hard, and really suck. Today I just finished this ten-day cleanse where you don’t eat, and it’s something I do every year and it’s very difficult. It’s not too difficult not to do, but it sucks, right? But the realisations I get from it are really cool. Like when I ate again I was like, “Wow. Food is fucking great. Any food is great.” Because you have the contrast to know what it’s like to go without it. So with Epicloud what I’m trying to achieve is that sort of beautiful glorious sense that certain elements of “Infinity” and Addicted! had, but mixed with some minor chords. Because when those minor chords come in they don’t affect me the way I thought they would. It used to be that if I chucked a minor chord in I thought it was going to have this gothic, black metal vibe to it, right? But really what it does is it just provides a release from relentless major chords!” Did he avoid that on Addicted! because he knew Deconstruction was on the way? “In a way. It was supposed to be a quarter of a definition of where I was as a musician, and to be honest it’s no longer where I am as a musician. If someone asked me to writeDeconstruction again, it’s like, there’s no way!”

Townsend is returning to Melbourne for the Soundwave festival on Friday March 2, preceded by a Sidewave with the mighty Meshuggah on February 2. The two acts have a long history together, most recently expressed on Deconstruction, the third album of the DTP. Decon features a solo buy Meshuggah guitarist Fredrik Thordendal on the title track, but more tellingly the song “Planet Of The Apes” contains the line “While we all have lots of bands who influence still…we all rip off Meshuggah!” Strapping and Meshuggah first toured together a decade ago. “My relationship with Meshuggah goes way back,” Townsend says. “In a way I’ve kind of grown in parallel with them and have a very implicit knowledge of how they’ve affected the scene from, say, 94 on. So a lot of times I think bands in general who are those innovators rarely get the acknowledgement as being such a contributing factor to the current state of affairs in a particular genre. I know for myself that when I first started Strapping I was so influenced by Fear Factory, and towards the end I was so influenced by Meshuggah. So I think it’s very important for me, as a person at least, to wear it on my sleeve and say ‘The reason I do that is because of these guys.’ Instead of trying to compete with that, as a fan I think it’s awesome. And on “Deconstruction” I tried to incorporate guys who I think are unique and have that capacity to influence.” Townsend says the Sidewave in particular is a good opportunity to make a statement with his own music. “I think it’s good to be Devin, as opposed to being Devin trying to be Meshuggah, or Band X who’s the current hip band or whatever, right? I like the idea of being able to play with Meshuggah and Dredge and just be the best version of myself that I can, and I think the show as a result of that will be very interesting.”

Soundwave is on Friday March 2 at Melboune Showgrounds. The Devin Townsend/Meshuggah/Dredj Sidewave is on Wednesday February 29 at The Forum (18+).