INTERVIEW: Devin Townsend

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS

Devin Townsend Project

Transcendence is the latest album from the Devin Townsend Project and in many ways it feels like a culmination of musical explorations that Devin begun in 2009 with Addicted! and that flowed through Epicloud and Sky Blue. It’s alternatingly melodic and crushing, ethereal and imposing, and in true Devin fashion it’s an album that reveals more about itself on each subsequent listen.

I love the new record. Y’know how every now and then an album comes along that’s just what you needed to hear at that point in time? 

That’s awesome. Thank you, Peter. It’s a special one for me in a lot of ways, and especially the latter half. The processes that went into it and the challenges that came into it, the control issues, letting go of things and trying to participate with other people and be analytical and aware enough of myself that I could call myself on my own shit is one thing. But it also coincided with what feels like a real tangible shift in my own psyche. Now, whether or not that was because of the fact that I took myself on vacation for the first time in my life, or something to do with age, or something to do with circumstances I’m not sure. But something shifted at the same time as the latter half of this record and now I find myself in a place that is new and foreign in a lot of ways and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

It’s interesting because the latter half of the record reminds me of Casualties of Cool and Ghost in that you’re not afraid to sustain a mood, and it feels like you’ve brought that in to the heavier stuff.

devin-townsend-project-transcendenceYeah. And I think also the end of this one is supposed to be …it’s like the end or something! I can’t quite define what it is. Y’know, I went on vacation, I finished the record after six months of, like every record, just hell trying to get this thing right. All the work that goes into it, the money that goes into it, the performances, the mistakes, the hard drives, editing, just the bullshit. Making records is a challenge if you’re going to try and get it right, right? So I took my family on vacation for the first time ever. We went on a cruise ship and I was out there and they were off doing something and I was just sitting on the deck by myself, cup of coffee, sunset, perfect weather, and I just decided fuck it, I’ll listen to the record. And when it came to the end, after ‘Transdermal Celebration’ and that ambient thing at the end it just busted me up, man! It was like, your subconscious is so much more in control of your direction than you ever give it credit for I think. And it was like everything in my world was pointing me in a direction I didn’t recognise I was going. And it was at that moment where I was like ‘Oh this is what it’s about.’ It’s not a big existential drama, it’s just simply a nice night, y’know? And it was such a simple thing and it was really dramatic for me only in the sense that I felt foolish for ever thinking that it was something else, that it was ever work or sex or money or any of these things. I mean, all of that stuff of course you’ve gotta have but it seems like I’ve been searching for something that was always there and now when I take a second to stop, when I do get a second to participate in it, it’s still there. I always was of the mindset that the job of an artist was to ultimately eliminate the need to say anything. It’s almost like the artistic motivation that leads us to rending ourselves in public, to articulate to strangers what it is that we’ve felt or learned or any of the reasons, it just seems in a certain way like an aberration. It’s almost like as you go, if you can find ways to purge yourself of it then there’s a real momentum towards becoming actualised in a way that flies in the face of what you expect. I mean you think okay, to be actualised as an artist you need to be Axl Rose or you need to be Stravinski or you need to be Prince, when maybe the reality of it is the need to express yourself all the time is actually the problem, and to be actualised you need to say everything and then be left with nothing but maybe improv or something, y’know? Who knows? It’s a hypothesis but at the same time, at the end of Transcendence it was really like a breakaway for me. It was like there was a thing I’d been hanging onto for many years and it was kinda like ‘See ya!’ as it just kind of floated away.

It’s interesting that it feels like you can draw a line between Addicted!, Epicloud, Sky Blue and this record. Neither of them sounds like the other but there’s something in common between them that it feels like you were compelled to explore. Maybe it’s that you’ve followed that thread and now you get to start a new one.

Yeah, exactly. All those records you mentioned had Anneke on them and they all had this group of guys and it’s an identity that I think was refined and distilled down to the point where on the new record it’s really a condensed version of all those things, almost like an archetype of it. But yeah, what happens next? I’ve got a bunch of ideas but who knows? It’s also, you take your head out of the clouds for a minute and you have to be pragmatic about it as well. Wife and kids, job, being a boss, a company that needs to make money with a very limited pool of resources for this type of music. And as much as I like to think it’s broken away and there’s this big transition and I feel like at a certain level I’m done, I can’t be done. So I’m clearly not, y’know what I mean?

It’s interesting how the album kicks off with ‘Truth’ which was originally on Infinity, and on the bonus disc there’s a demo of ‘Victim’ which is a song from the Physicist record. In the past you’ve also revisited ‘Hyperdrive’ and ‘Kingdom.’ What is it that makes you revisit this stuff? For me it reminds me of Zappa, and I love it because it’s like we’re checking in with the song and seeing where it is today. 

Well there’s that, for sure. That’s actually a really astute way of looking at it. But I think it’s also probably more rooted in the fact that I just never feel like I get it right. I feel like the music that I am fortunate enough to be able to participate in is not really my music so much as something that I was privy to and I’ll never get right. Like, I’ll never get it right, it’ll never be right. But the vision of what it is meant to feel like, of how it’s meant to impact people is so distinct in my mind that I think I owe it to the music to consistently try and get it closer to the mark. Even if there were things that were lacking from the Infinity version that aren’t on Transcendence, there’s many things about the Transcendence version that the Infinity version can never have. So hopefully somewhere along the line, who knows? Maybe we’ll just keep doing it again and again and one day I’ll be able to do it perfectly, right? Although I know I can’t, being an imperfect perfectionist, but there’s still this sense that maybe that lack of being able to perfect what I do will propel me into old age! The carrot at the end of the stick.

You seem to be playing more guitar solos on this record. Was there a particular conscious reason behind that or did it just work out that way?

I think there’s a part of me that felt like by stepping out of my comfort zone in as many ways as the record was compelling me to do, that was just another example of something that I needed to get over. Like any guitar nerd it’s like, I’ve been playing guitar for so long, I know how to play solos and blah blah blah blah blah and I just haven’t done it. Whether or not it’s a hang-up from being with Vai years ago or whatever, there was just a certain point where I was like ‘I’ve got all sorts of signature gear – guitars, picks, pedals, pickups – so I must not be that bad of a guitar player, so why not play some solos?’ And then I did! And to be honest, the solos are still really tentative. They’re not like confident guitar solos, they’re just me sticking my toes in the water at this point. But who knows? Maybe by doing that I’ll come to the conclusion of ‘I’m not that into guitar solos.’ Maybe that’s the end of the rainbow. But you’re never going to know until you give it a shot.

The solo in ‘Failure’ – I like how it’s very searching. It feels like you’re looking for something while you’re playing it and that’s consistent with the theme of the song itself. 

Yeah! Somebody asked me the other day, ‘When you write music, how does it come to you?’ And I said I don’t listen to the note. I just look where it wants to go and then I go in that direction. And the trajectory of that is very rarely a statement, and more of this kind of roll-on sentence, y’know what I mean? And I’m into that because I don’t think as an artist – I don’t even think as a person – that anything in my life is a statement except for me. The fact that I am always searching will probably ultimately be my statement. So in that way I wouldn’t expect a guitar solo from me at this stage in my life to be any different from that.

So talking guitar, I understand the Framus signature model is about to hit the streets. 

Yeah! We’ve got one more refinement coming up. But yeah man, goddamn it’s a good guitar. I’ve got these guitars out with me and they’re so good, dude! Between that and the Fishman pickup and the EverTune and all this crap that’s going on in my world it’s so good, dude. They’re such beautiful instruments and it’s like, I’m still shocked that they’re making them for me.

Framus

What are you using live at the moment?

Well I always experiment with things but the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx is always in it. No matter what I do, Fractal is always a part of it because they replicated my effects and all these sounds I’ve had for 25 years. They did it all for me and Fractal goes with me wherever I am. But I always do a two-amp system, so I’ve got a dry amp that I MIDI into the Fractal, and that dry amp is one of five sounds. There’s a crunchy metal sound, a good clean sound, a kind of a Marshall sound, a lead sound… and I can get that from almost anything. I could use another fractal, a Kemper, a Mesa, KSR, anything. On this tour for the sake of weight I’m using a Kemper but I know Mesa’s got this new John Petrucci amp that’s MIDI and rack-mountable and that looks great too. I’m happy to experiment with amps in that dry position.

Hey before our time is up there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you about. On the Casualties of Cool record in the song ‘Flight’ there’s a weird digital-sounding, chattery harmony on the word ‘collision’ that doesn’t occur anywhere else in the song. What’s the deal with that? 

Che recorded her parts herself and that word, there was a digital glitch on it but it wasn’t that digital glitch. There was something that sounded like a problem. Now whether or not that was her recording or my transfer or whatever, as I was mixing it I kept trying to ignore it and I couldn’t so I morphed the word so it sounded like something collided with it. And that way I could get rid of the problem and then adhere it to her lyrics.

It always stood out to me in such a cool way!

Well it’s a happy accident! The same thing happened with Ocean Machine. At the beginning of ‘Funeral’ you hear a glitch on one side and then it goes onto the other speaker. The reason for that is that the glitches on the left side of the speaker were part of the DAT transfer, so they were mistakes that we couldn’t get rid of so I made it sound like a call and answer with one of my own sounds, and then it became part of the record. The happy accident part of my world is something I happily embrace.

Transcendence is available now.