Devin Townsend is many things: composer, lyricist, vocalist, guitarist, producer – hell, you could even stretch that to ‘humourist,’ and in the process draw some pretty solid parallels to Frank Zappa. But no matter which hat he puts on, whether it’s releasing albums with the Devin Townsend Project, playing intense-yet-uplifting live shows (like his impending Australian tour) or as the lead vocalist on Steve Vai’s 1993 Sex & Religion album, Devin has always been about the pure expression of the idea. As a guitarist his style is instantly identifiable, so it seemed like a good point to kick off our conversation.
How do you see the guitar? Do you conceptualise it as a bunch of lines and shapes? Or as a more abstract thing?
That’s a good question. I’ll start by saying this: all I do right now is play bass. I don’t play guitar at all. All I do is play bass, all day! Like, really, my fingers are shot. I play bass all day. And I think that leads me to, what do I see guitar as? Well I see it as a bunch of things. I see it as a tool. I see it as a weapon. I see it as a bunch of blocks. I see it as a bunch of patterns. I see it as a bunch of baggage as well. And because I’ve been in this weird tuning for so long (CGCGCE), I see it as almost exclusively a writing tool as opposed to anything else. Inevitably someone will put a guitar in your hands and be like, “Well, play something.” But I use it to write songs, y’know? I’m a guitar player, of course. I saw an interview with Steven Wilson where he’s like, “I’m not a guitar player,’ but I mean, he is a guitar player! I’m a guitar player. I love the guitar. But I agree with him in the sense that I’m not a guitar player in the way of my identity being invested in my ability to do things on it. I’ve got a certain capacity for technique that allows me to articulate pretty much anything that comes into my head, and a lot of the things that come into my head are rarely the types of things that require acrobatics. But when people put a guitar in my hand and they’re like, “Solo!,” what am I supposed to do? So I’ve got a reservoir of ten or twelve shapes that I’ve been playing for 30 years that I’ll pull out. But the reason why I have those in a place technically that allows me to perform them marginally well is that those shapes I can apply to almost any idea that I have, whether it’s the sweeping or the tapping or the string skipping or the riffing, those shapes allow me to play any thought that I have. And that’s what I do! So when I sit down to record I’m always in shape, guitar-wise. Whether I’m playing bass or guitar, regardless, I’m in shape. It’s been years since I’ve not played. So in that sense, yeah, I’m a guitar player in the same way that Steven Wilson or anybody is. But it is truly a vehicle for me to articulate my emotional or artistic process, and that’s where it ends.
So for me, bass is much more interesting because there’s something about it that’s just really, really soul-satisfying to me. The lack of need for it to be in the spotlight, and there’s a certain zen in being able to be disciplined enough to play the same thing for five minutes. I’m into Massive Attack, y’know, being able to play an awesome riff without it deviating for five minutes, I love that! And now, guitars… I’m infatuated with the actual physicality of it. And I’ve been fortunate to work with these brilliant companies recently, like Framus and Sadowsky in particular. Unbelievable instruments, right? And because I’ve got that opportunity I’m like, “Dude, let’s just put lights on ’em!” Like, I’ve got a Tele – I’ve got my writing guitars, a Tele and a Strat and a Les Paul and I’m good to go, so my stage guitars? Dude, let’s just make these things audacious!
So what is it about the Framus that you’re digging? A semi-hollowbody wouldn’t be the first thing you’d think of for the kind of music you make, but hell, it works!
Well I think the thing for me is it took the Peavey experience and everything else to really come to terms with what it is that I like about guitars. And one thing that I hadn’t given enough credit to is my love of vintage stuff. Casualities of Cool is really vintage guitar tone: ’57 Champ, these old brown face Princetons, these little Gibson amps, old Teles and old Gibson 335s – the old shit, because I love the vibe of the 50s. I love it, dude. It’s just so tough to me. It’s like, my grandparents, they lived through the depression and all that stuff, and that’s way harder to function as a human than a lot of what we’ve been posed now. Granted there are a lot of challenges now that would leave my grandparents stunned, but really, that depression-era shit was heavy. And I think the instruments were made as a reflection of that. So it’s simple, but it’s tough, and I find myself really inspired by a lack of options. So after fucking around with the digital stuff for so long – which I love, it’s got its place and I love it: AxeFX, brilliant. ReValver, brilliant, right? But I just get hung up on the options, and I don’t like options. In my ProTools rig I’ve got two plug-ins that I use. I don’t have tonnes of delays and tonnes of reverbs. I’ve got one delay. I’ve got one reverb. And so writing, for me, has been great with just having one knob on an amp, one pickup to work with. Then you have to focus on the music.
So with the Framus stuff, I really like the idea of taking that aesthetic, that 50s old-school vibe and just turning it into Ziltoid shit. Turning it into aliens. And I love that dichotomy. That mixture of worlds is something that really appeals to me. And Framus, I gotta say, man, they can do anything. I love working with people that when you say to them “Can you do this?” the answer is not like “Oh I don’t know, man…” Framus is like “We’ll give it a shot!” I love that! People who are willing to try! Because if you fail, at least you tried. And it’s very rare that I meet a company or musician in general that are willing to put themselves in a position of failure. I just find that really endearing.
It’s like how I recently asked MJ at the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop to make me a pickup that sounds like sunlight streaming through a glass of beer. She knew exactly how to turn something that abstract into something tangible.
You just hit the nail on the head, man. When you’re surrounded by people who are willing to do that, creatively it’s just so liberating. Because whether or not that ultimately becomes something that defines you, or whether that’s ultimately going to be the most appropriate thing, there’s something about that attitude, of people saying “I’m willing to give it a go” …those are the people I want in my life. And Framus are very much like that.
We’re putting together this Ziltoid puppet and dude, it costs a fortune, and it’s this brilliant, crazy fucking thing that could just fall flat on its face. But we’re gonna finish it, and because it’s finished, everyone who’s involved with it I’m like, “I want you in my life.” Because we’re willing to go not only the distance but the extra mile for something that has no real reason to exist other than “Let’s try it.”
That’s the feeling I get from Mike Keneally’s music – he just goes for it and gets to these emotional places. It feels exhilarating.
That’s it. Mike Keneally’s next-level brilliant. It’s so hard to argue with that type of a mind in terms of artistic motivations. But I think that you can take someone like Keneally, who is brilliant like that, or the drummer for Casualties, Morgan, who is just brilliant, and those things exist through their ability to articulate it. But you can also get that from people who work at the mill. You can also get that from people who work at the bar and they have this way of speaking that’s just so free. And in a lot of ways I think there’s a freedom that comes from not having these parameters placed on you. And dude, you get into this quasi-manic phase when you do interview after interview, so I apologise, but to articulate that further, that’s what I’m so happy about with this Casualities album, man. There are no parameters. No-one’s told me what to do. No-one cares about it! It’s like, the more people speak to me about Strapping, the less I’m able to be at peace with it because it just makes me go “Oh shut up!” (Laughs). It’s not like I get to sit with it and say “This is something brilliant that I love and I put a lot of time and energy into it.” I just find myself irritated by it because people, they assume – in my mind – that I’m holding out on them. Well, it’s the same thing as people assuming that James Hetfield is holding out on them to write another Master of Puppets. He’s not holding out on them. He’s changed! Times change! And I’m not comparing myself to Hetfield or anything like that, I’m just using that as an analogy. But with Casualties, it’s a record that I’m just …amidst Deconstruction and the pressures on that record to be or not to be something, and amid Epicloud and the label being excited about it and everybody wanting the right compression and all that sort of thing, and it needs the right video for it and the right marketing plan… amidst both those records I’d been writing Casualties. And any time I’d tell people about it they’d be like “Yeah, yeah, yeah. So anyway…” But these are a bunch of songs I really love, and they’re really in line with my personality and the things that aren’t forced in me and aren’t contrived. We do “Julaar” and I have a great time, and it’s all creatively interesting… and then Epicloud, during Epicloud I was like, “Man, I really like this Epicloud thing,” but there’s a lot of pressure on it. It’s not devoid of parameters. There are – very much – parameters on that. So I’m writing Casualties and there are no parameters on it. And it turns out to something effortless and very peculiar but more in line, if you want to look at it from an artistic point of view, with me as a person than anything I’ve done recently.
And I think you have an audience who – well, there are some guys who are going to say “Yeah, I downloaded a few Strapping albums and I want more of that.” But there are a lot of us who trust you: whatever you’re going to come out with, we trust you with our ears.
Yeah! I mean, I trust myself too, which is strange to hear myself say, but I do. And I also trust that the things that allow me to be functional, not only as an artist but as a human, are the things that I employ in the process that allows me to say “I’m not doing that,” or “I am doing that.” Is it commercially advisable for me not to follow up Epicloud with another version of Epicloud? No! It makes no sense, right? However, if that’s what I had felt like doing, I would have. Rest assured. I’ve got no hang-up about being viewed as cheesy or nerdy or contrived or anything. Call me whatever you want, I don’t give a shit, y’know what I mean? Because ultimately, what I’m doing is exactly what I feel compelled to do. And if some cheesy, nerdy thing was what I felt compelled to do, I would have done it! But this is what I felt like doing, and so I did it!”
Well, that’s our 15 minutes up already!
Yeah. Thanks so much for your time. I’ve got my ticket for your Melbourne show and I’ll be there!
Thanks Peter, man. And you’ve been so helpful for so many years and I really appreciate the support, dude. And I hope everything goes well in your life and your career and I look forward to talking to you again, man.
Thanks. I look forward to catching you soon.
DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT AUSTRALIAN TOUR
THURSDAY 10 OCTOBER – BRISBANE, THE AUDITORIUM – AA
FRIDAY 11 OCTOBER – SYDNEY, THE METRO – LIC AA
SUNDAY 13 OCTOBER – MELBOURNE, THE PALACE – 18+
TUESDAY 15 OCTOBER – PERTH – METROPOLIS FREMANTLE – 18+