INTERVIEW: Devin Townsend

Devin TownsendThere’s like a secret knowing wink between Devin Townsend fans, a shared understanding that within the multiple layers, in amongst the links between songs, albums and projects, nesting in the balance of depth, introspection, humour and expression, there’s something in there that we all relate to and that Devin has been able to articulate in a way that resonates with us. This year is a great time to see the extremes of this musical voice, with the space country of Casualties of Cool and the forthcoming Z2. And for those of us who like to throw on the headphones, sit back and think “How does he do it? How can I dip into that well too for my own musical expression?” Devin will be hitting Australia in October for a series of masterclasses for Thump Music where he’ll give us a peek into the guitar, vocal and production ideas that inform and express his work. So with the masterclass tour coming up and the release of Z2 just around the corner, I caught up with Devin to talk about what’s what.

I’m stoked about this clinic tour.
So am I, actually! It gives me an opportunity to dig into some of the things I’ve wanted to share with people, to be fair. I’ve spent a long time making records and I’ve kinda gotten to this point recently where it’s like, shit, now it’s time to step it up and get other people to start taking over. 

So you’ll soon be licensing the Devin Townsend concept to regional Devins?
Yes, everything louder than everything else, with tonnes of echo on it, right? No I think it’s an opportunity as well not only guitar-wise but production-wise, vocal-wise, recording techniques and questions, essentially. I’ve found recently that a lot of people have a lot of questions about production and I think an opportunity to do this is a forum for me to share some of that with people. I think it’ll be great.

Just listening back to all the stuff you’ve done over the years, your production style has preceded everybody becoming their own auteur. Everybody wants to do these kinds of big productions at home but nobody knows where to start.
Well there’s a good thing. I wish I could say that my reasons for having done it all myself in the beginning were based on some sort of noble pursuit rather than lack of funding, but the end result of it is I’ve done 30 records with this stuff and I’ve encountered every conceivable problem that anybody doing the kind of music I do could run into. Most of these records I do – or I did in the beginning, at least – for nothing, right? So I think where there’s a will there’s a way. There are several records I’m made with a concerted effort to do with the least amount of gear possible, like the first Ziltoid, up to the new Ziltoid record which I did with thousands of people.

Devin TownsendSomething on the guitar front that I want to ask about: last time we talked you said you like to use Teles and Strats for songwriting. What is it about those that you find conducive to the process?
I think the Casualties of Cool record was a huge thing for me. I’ve been doing the metal stuff happily and proactively for many years but the type of guitar sound that I really find the most inspiring is a half-distorted sound. The least amount of options in terms of amp and guitar is the best for me. I mean, I’ve always got reverbs and delays and all that which I certainly enjoy using, but when it comes to amps and guitars, the least amount of options possible I find the most amount of creative stimulus from, if it’s a good instrument. Because then you’re focusing more on what you’re working on rather than utilising all the bells and whistles of the guitar. So a single coil Telecaster is pretty much the ideal guitar for me, I would imagine. And an amp with between one and three knobs and anywhere between 15 and 40 watts is perfect.

I also find that when you’re not piling everything up with a bunch of distortion you hear individual notes in the chord more and that might suggest a melody or harmony that you might not have otherwise captured.
Certainly, and I find that most of my writing has typically been written with octaves because then the tonalities get filled in with the myriad of other things I want to orchestrate it with. So starting with octaves and all that when I actually start recording is something I can fill in with a heavier sound or whatever, but while I’m writing, having a half-distorted sound allows me to play those intervals and the chords that will eventually be built up in a way that implies the whole song to me. And single coils, simple gear, really allows me to get to the point much quicker.

Casualties is so haunting, and every time I listen to it there’s more there. How do you feel about that whole experience? I mean, it sounds like you’re loving it…
Well we just did three shows. The first show was awkward, the second show was good and the third show was brilliant. And I’m saying that from someone who has a hard time with his own work, being critical of it. But it was brilliant. When I listen back to the Casualities record it’s like anything. I tend to start projects aggressively just so I can get it out there. I try to ‘trial by fire’ it so at least it gets started. With the Casualties record it took a long time for that first record to be finished, and once that record was finished, in my opinion it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. But it is really long, and it is different from what it ended up being live. But it at least started it, y’know? Well in the future I would love to be able to take that project much further. The whole Casualties thing started from me hearing the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album, Raising Sand. To have that sort of producer – T-Bone Burnett – track the band as it becomes more fluent would just be so great because then I could focus on guitar sounds. Morgen Agren played the drums on these shows and it was so great. By the time it was over I was like, “I don’t want this to end.”

Did you record those shows?
Yeah, we recorded the second one, the good one. Not the blinding one, but we got a good one. So we’ll at least have an opportunity to show people what it is, right?”

And that leads us to Z2. I’ve heard the album about five times now and it’s so… big!  I mean it’s just so… so big!
Well here’s the thing with Ziltoid, man. There are some records like Casualties that I went into with calmness and a sense of freedom. Ziltoid was a battle from the very beginning. I went in thinking “Here’s my opportunity to make this puppet thing that I’ve wanted to do for years.” And the amount of parameters that I needed to impose on myself for what I wanted the project to be… the label, the audience, the pledge thing, the fact that all of a sudden there are kids listening to it. There are so many parameters on Ziltoid that it wasn’t even compromises that needed to be made. I needed to find the razor’s edge in order to make it function in so many ways, man. It was crazy. The whole thing, it felt like a war. From the beginning to the end. And I fought it up to the last second, literally. I delivered the record five minutes after the deadline and that was the third deadline that got pushed. And ultimately I love it, I’m just so proud of it, but it’s also indicative of the end of… Ziltoid 1 started right when we had kids and now here we are eight years later and sobriety and Devin Townsend Project and Retinal Circus and By A Thread and all the people and everything that’s come and gone… the conclusion of it with Ziltoid 2 was something that was honestly just incredibly difficult. And I approached it differently than I approached any other record, not only for the sake of the personnel involved but also for the fact that I feel that my audience has been incredibly kind with allowing me to do all this stuff, like “I’m gonna make an outer-space country record. I’m gonna make an ambient record, I’m gonna make a new age record.” And a lot of the time the audience is like “Okay,” y’know? But after Casualties I thought “There’s your art film: now make a Hollywood movie and go on tour for a while.”

There are many things I love about Z2 but one of them is that the voice acting is so deliciously hammy.
Devin Townsend Z2
Well I think that if you’re like me, which I’m sure you are in many ways, you’re probably not going to know what to feel about it for a while. And I’m still there, y’know? It’s a very confusing project in every way and right now, as we’re talking, I’ve got ProTools open and I’m working on the puppet show that comes out in like a week. I’m working on the Ziltoid website and comic book and all this stuff that goes with it. It’s such a multimedia project that now that I see it all coming together, to me it feels like a real triumph but it’s …fucked. It’s confusing and claustrophobic and complicated and it’s not something that is an easy thing to accept, even for me. So I imagine there’s gonna be a lot of people who are gonna hear it and be like “Whoa, dude… the amount of shit that I’m being thrown is just off the hook. I need some time.” But I can safely say that now that I’ve had some time… like the other day I was in Helsinki and I was walking around listening to it and I was just like “What the fuck have we done? This is crazy?” It’s confusing, man.

Well it’s great that there’s Sky Blue, this whole other disc of Devin Townsend Project stuff because it’s almost like the Ziltoid record is so big and so intense and a lot of fun but there’s this whole other record which moves through so many moods, dips into peaceful territory, gets big as well, gives you a whole other experience.
It’s supposed to be a war between the two sides, and the DTP side was a war for me in the way that I’ve got people saying to me “Hey, re-do Epicloud,” and I’m like “I don’t wanna. I’m not there, I don’t wanna.” So I had to find something to write about that inspired me. And strangely with Sky Blue there’s a lot of death all of a sudden. Some really close friends of mine, their mother died …suicide in a bunch of places, my cat got eaten, a lot of death things. And I think Casualties was really a record about fear, and I think Sky Blue ended up being a record about persevering when you would rather not. Y’know, there’s a sense of giving up that was throughout this record. I was like, I’m tired, man. I’ve been doing this for so long. It’s been Retinal, By A Thread, low-budget chaos, trying to make it work, kids and everything. I finished Casualties which was a record I just put so much love and attention into, and then two weeks later I had to make this thing that was just so intense, man. And there were so many times during Ziltoid where I was like “I just want to give up. I just want to say ‘fuck it.’ It’s too much.” Just the puppet alone is a huge job. The Universal Choir alone is a huge job. The choir, the orchestra, the production, two records, computers, it’s so much that I just wanted to quit, over and over and over again. But I didn’t, and I think the thing that makes the record so important to me is that. At the end of it here’s songs about death, here’s songs about Ziltoid, here’s songs about battle, here’s songs about all these things with massive amounts of production and all this shit, but it didn’t get phoned in and I didn’t quit. So I think when I look back at this period in my life, that’s what Z2’s going to represent. It’s less about the project itself and more about the fact that we did it, y’know? It’s this undertaking that at so many times during the process it was like “This is going to fucking implode.” And plus it’s summer break during all of this. In British Columbia the schools have been on strike for months, so amidst all of this, amidst the pledge drive and the tour we’ve got kids off of school, swinging off our balls from 8 o’clock in the morning, y’know what I mean! Dude, it was crazy. So that’s what Ziltoid is. It’s a direct representation of this period.

I’ve gotta tell you, “Fallout” from Sky Blue… every one of your albums it seems like there’s one song that really grabs me and I’m like “Argh, that’s the song I didn’t know I wanted to hear but always did,” and “Fallout” for me is one of those songs.
Thank you man. I wouldn’t be surprised if these records are …I’ve got so much that I’ve done that it’s like, Z2 is a great record but people have heard so much from me for so long – I’ve heard so much from me for so long – that I need to now tour it and think about my next move. Maybe what I’m doing next is single coil guitar stuff from here on out. Who knows, right? But I think it’s important for people to take it with a grain of salt and hopefully hear from where it comes from. And I really hope people like it because I put a thousand percent into it at a time when I had eight percent to give, y’know what I’m saying?

Well there’s so much to digest and all that hard work is certainly appreciated.
Well I appreciate it, man. Take your time with it, and I say to everybody, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know how I feel yet,” Y’know what I mean? It took me a long time to understand how I feel about Z2, and now that I do I feel like it’s the total trumph. But man, there were months where I would put it on and it was so much information that it would shut me down. Somebody did an interview and he’d heard Z2 and he was like “Oh it’s my favourite record,” and I was like “No it isn’t. Give it time. It’s really crazy and it’s really intense, and what it represents I think is not even clear to me yet. So number one, dude, between me and you Peter you’ve been so supportive and I appreciate all the things you’ve done and I certainly am on board with my own work in terms of being as analytical of myself as everyone else, and man, I’m asking a lot of people from this. Here’s the thing: the albums are one thing but how it goes together with the puppet show, that’s the whole crux of it. So Ziltoid as a project for me, it’s a very complicated thing but I hope that the ambition of it, some people will get a kick out of, because now I’ve finished it I feel like I’ve taken a 14-mile dump.

DEVIN TOWNSEND AUSTRALIAN MASTERCLASS TOUR

BRISBANE 20th of October – evening clinic 7pm for a 7:30pm start @ The Princess Theatre

SYDNEY 21st of October – evening clinic 7pm for a 7:30pm start @ Paddington Town Hall
MELBOURNE 22nd of October – evening clinic 7pm for a 7:30pm start @ St Kilda Town Hall
ADELAIDE 23rd of October – evening clinic 7pm for a 7:30pm start @ The Governor Hindmarsh Hotel
PERTH 25th of October – midday clinic 11:30am for a 12:00pm start @ Hale School

Tickets from Thump Music.

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