Being Devin Townsend: Q&A with Ziltoid’s old man

Devin Townsend is on the phone and he’s freaking out because he’s booked four shows in London; over consecutive nights he’ll be playing Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost in their entirety, and it’s a big fucking deal. It’s stressful. He’s also headlining Leeds, UK metal-fest Damnation, which he promises to go heavy on with the riffs and stuff (when in Rome…), and the success of this year’s Deconstruction and its more subtle sibling Ghost means that his face is fucking everywhere. Like, this sort of John Malkovich nightmare is what happens when you get a John Malkovich haircut, Devy, and give your name to a project that’s just totally snowballed both in popularity and artistic bravado since retiring the hyper-cyber pyrotechnics of Strapping Young Lad. The Canadian producer, musical polymath, genius under-appreciated comedian and reluctant philosopher will work it out, though. Fear not, folks. He can always call on his omniscient alien offspring for clues.
You’re playing Damnation, where the headliners are yourself, Ulver and Godflesh, all bands who are ostensibly metal but have their very own take on it. Do you find that metal fans becoming more open-minded?
Devin Townsend: I think metal bands are getting more open-minded. I don’t know about the fans, necessarily, but I think the bands that you’ve cited, like myself, Ulver and Justin, we’re all getting older in general. I know Justin’s just had a kid, I have a kid, and a lot of us just get to the age where we’re partying as hard as we used to is just no longer an option. I think the people that I have, not a problem with, questions for are those that don’t allow themselves to be open to the possibility that maybe what they used to do when they were 23 is no longer valid. I think it’s inevitable, and that heavy music in the sense that these bands have been involved with such a young genre, there’s really been no knowledge of what happens when these people get older, and that’s it. People change. I think metal fans, not everybody, but a lot of them will want to hang on to the things that endeared them to it in the first place but I think as a musician, an artist, to not follow where it [the music] leads is pretty silly, right?

We, as metal fans, are inherently sentimental.

DT: I agree, and so am I. Just because there’s a sentimental attachment to the past, it kind of smacks of being emotionally immature if you don’t allow yourself to grow when those moments appear. Like, I dunno, it doesn’t make much sense to me not to follow it.

Emotionally immature, but is it not more emotionally dysfunctional?

DT:Y’know, I’ve said that in the past and you get some people who are perhaps emotionally dysfunctional, “You take that back or I’ll punch you in the nose!” Oh right, that doesn’t mean you’re emotionally dysfunctional at all, buddy!

Justin Broadrick said recently that Godflesh still resonated in him that he just had to resurrect the project. Do you ever feel like that with SYL, or do you think that feeling will return?
DT: Well I mean I think there’s elements of Strapping… that I incorporate into what I can do in the future, but Strapping… to the exclusion of everything else? No. Like, no. It doesn’t make any sense for me to do that. I think knowing Justin in the small way that I do, Godflesh and Jesu, and everything he’s done has been an extension of something that has been very consistent for him, he’s been very much consistent through everything he has done, and the way I write—I’ll go out on a limb here and say the process is a little different. I just kind of purge things as I go, as a by-product of where I’m at as a person. I think that one of the things for me, one of the defining factors of how I have evolved as a musician and a person, is that I think I realised when I was younger that I had a real anger management problem, as in I don’t think I’d ever learned effective mechanisms to properly express anger in a healthy way. Though, when I was younger it came out in ways that were dramatic, and I’m really proud of, I just don’t relate to it any more. It’s the intention behind it that no longer resonates with me. Not necessarily the music but the intention, right, and when I play music live, when I talk about music, if I’m not connected to the intention then it’s like a pantomime. Now, what I’m doing, it’s very easy to back it and say, “This is why I’m doing it, this is what my intention is and this is why I feel the need to do this at this point in my life.” Going back to my thought that there is still some of the Strapping stuff that still applies to that, ‘cos there’s certain songs from the Strapping… catalogue that do still resonate with me, but a lot of the stuff that was the most popular stuff I just can’t get behind it the way I used to. And being a father has actually made that even more apparent rather than less.

You’ve become a lot more playful. Is that something that’s come with finding new ways to manage anger, from being a father and not being afraid to put some humour in the music? Because you’re one of the few who can use humour in metal and not turn people off.

DT: Well, thanks for the vote of confidence but I can say I definitely do turn people off, right! Ha ha ha! I think the playful elements of it, for me, I think that was something that I had before I did the Steve Vai project. I had this band when I was 16, 17, Grey Skies, and it was funny. I really liked Primus and that sort of thing, so it was really a big part of me. When I moved to L.A., left Birmingham and did all this stuff that made my life serious all of a sudden I kind of lost it, and having that in my music now is more a sense of me having worked through another 15 years of my development, of turning into something that was never publicly seen before: it seems like it’s new, but really [the playfulness] has gone full circle to when I was first starting music. And, I’d like to say as well, a lot of the playful elements and the humorous elements of what I do, I’m hoping it’s more of a way to disarm people rather than make what I am trying to get across into a joke. I mean, the things that I’ve been interested in writing about, and the things I’m interested in saying have always been consistent, like I’m interested in things that are beyond me. I have no interest in religion but I have a heavy interest in the spiritual aspects of life. But with that, I have no real understanding—I don’t think anybody does. I guess what I’ve been trying to do with my music is to take heavy music and say, “Well here’s a version of that energy that I felt during this experience or that experience” and hopefully the audience can participate in that, and OK, they might think, “I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about but I feel that, I get it”. The problem you might run into is if you don’t feel that, you don’t pepper it with some sort of self-awareness that’s deprecating to a point—you just end up preaching to people, and there’s nothing more nauseating for me than having someone try to tell you this that or the other. So, with my music I’m trying to represent these things that are beyond me but I think are awesome, but I do it a little more light-heartedly just so people will be more inclined to participate in it rather than some big serious fucking Pink Floydian tirade.

It’s not automatic that the listener is going to take less out of the music just because there is a sense of fun running through it?
DT: Totally, I appreciate. But at the same time, I think Monty Python was a big thing for me when I was a kid. Like, I remember seeing the Meaning of Life, Life of Brian, and they were trying to make a point, but it was done in a way that was like disarming. I remember as a kid watching the Meaning of Life and the live organ transplant and being horrified by it but at the same time it was still kinda funny, and that’s definitely what I’ve tried to do, if not a direct influence from that but to draw a comparison to it. I’ve got something horrifying to say but if I’ve got something that’s in my own mind enriched my mind to say, I like to put it in as sense that’s not as direct. Maybe that’s been a failing of what I do—maybe that will change some day in the future. At least for now, in a live sense, it makes it a little more entertaining on a performance level.

As a solo artist, how do you silence that inner critic? The whole “I’m my own worst critic” thing is admirable but that can be bad for creativity.
DT: Yeah, well I think that in order to be a public figure, in terms of performing and all this stuff—I said this in the boxset and I’ll say it now—I think it takes an unbelievably high level of narcissism but also an equally high level of self-loathing. I know, for myself, for example it’s every day with the Devin Townsend Project, it’s what I do for a living and I’m on the road for ten months of the year promoting Devin Townsend, to the point where it has become a brand rather than my name. So, everyday, I’ll open up my email and there’ll be pictures of me, there’ll be videos of me, or there’ll be an interview with me, something, to the point where I’m just like, “Jesus Christ, that guy is a fucking doorknob!” People come up to me and say, “Tell us why we should care about the Devin Townsend Project?” and I’ll say, “Well, you got me!” Ha ha, y’know, as of this morning I am so sick of my own face, I got nothing to say to them. I think that in order to temper that, to allow yourself to get up and do it every morning you’ve got to focus on the music rather than me: the character, or whatever the defense mechanisms take shape as, because I think in a lot of ways that’s why I enjoy the character Ziltoid so much—it’s a lot easier for me to get behind, y’know, an obnoxious alien instead of staring at myself all the time, ha ha ha! At least that doesn’t bore the shit out of me until I’m sick of the sight of myself.

Ziltoid, raised the question: but is coffee a big catalyst for your creativity?
DT: Not as much, I go in and out of drinking it. But it’s like, for me the coffee thing, the cheeseburger thing, the puppet thing, the alien thing, all that shit is supposed to be a metaphor, and it’s like I think it’s easier for me to make metaphors about the things that are important to me than to speak directly about it because every year that goes by my perspective of what used to be true and what isn’t true changes—as it should. The coffee thing? It’s important, more so than literally coffee or literally puppets; it’s about what it should represent. This character, who is controlled by something else, his whole quest for knowledge or domination or whatever is essentially fueled by the basics—he just wants to get a good cup of coffee—and those sorts of statements in the long run, maybe not while I’m doing this, will be a little more easily applied to different scenarios rather than just saying two plus two equals four, right? It’s a metaphor for all of that, and Ziltoid is just a big metaphor.

And it fits the music, dealing in metaphors, because that frees you up, musically, to do whatever you want. It’s like writing fiction but for music.
DT: That’s it, 100 per cent. Because I think if you’re just coming from your own perspective, it’s like, I think you run the risk of allowing people to think that what your topics are, what you’re talking about yourself, is of such importance that everybody needs too hear about them. I’m of the mindset that all humans are cut from the same cloth, and we’re all ignorant, and pretty much tied to the basics: all the philosophical/quantum physics, etc, is peppered by the fact that we are humans, we need to shit, eat, and fuck and all these things. So, to me, that makes a lot of sense in terms of humour; it definitely separates that spiritual and philosophical angle of music and brings it down to the brass tacks of it. “What d’ya need to move one?” Regardless of whether you’re feeling this, that or the other thing without coffee it’s going to be hard to get going.

Right, like all the philosophy and science in the world comes from the caveman standing there terrified because he’s just lit a fire and doesn’t know why, and thinks the world’s ending because the leaves are falling off the trees.
DT: That’s it! And I think you can pretend on some level that we’ve changed, we’ve advanced, we’re like thousands of years passed the caveman, but really I think intrinsically humans are exactly the same now as we were in the prehistoric era; we’re still looking for food, sex and comfort, reassurance that there’s more to life than just us and our fears.

And until we can develop telekinesis or grow and extra finger, we pretty much are what we are and always were.
DT: Artistically, the only way in my mind to progress—well, not the only way but for me—is to draw assumptions from creatively liberating ideas. Instead of drawing from two plus two equals four, what can we draw from guessing that perhaps the universe is actually a fictional drop in the bucket in terms of a butterfly’s dream, or whatever? I think you can go a lot further into the reality of your own world by guessing on artistic fancy rather than assuming that all the science of the world is accurate. I think everything is subjective. I think one person’s blue is another person’s red. Anyway, who claims to know anything, whether it’s science or religion or whatever, it’s just open to suspicion as far as I’m concerned. I’m making art that maybe seems absurd on the surface but ultimately it’s an effective way, I believe, of hypothesizing what things might be about. Who knows? And if everything is just like subjective, then how wrong can you be? Maybe it is a dream that Ziltoid had, maybe there is nothing else other than me, maybe there is nothing but you, maybe it’s all bullshit or maybe it’s all real. But I like the idea of being confident and saying, “I have no fucking idea, like, no idea… But here’s some cool ideas!” Ultimately, all I wanna do is connect with people.

Which then help you stumble across different conclusions to different concepts.

DT: Absolutely, and I think a lot of the things you stumble on, you’d never think to explore if it was all just based on math and science and religion. I think humour is a good catalyst, man.

It takes away the reverence about the world—that makes questioning things a lot easier, doesn’t it?
DT: I like questioning everything, ourselves and each other, our answers and our dreams and whatever. I think that underneath all that questioning it should be very well assumed that none of us know shit to start with. As humans, we’re still evolutionarily passed the wheel. Maybe in the future there’ll be more definite answers but for right now I think hypotheses are the way to go. Having artistic vehicles that allow me to hypothesize in completely absurd ways makes a lot of sense creatively.

Are these questions that you hypothesize about more important inspirationally than any piece or music?

DT: I don’t think any of it is really important, to be honest. I think it’s interesting. I think it keeps me from being bored, but I don’t think it’s important. I think that the important things in life are finding a clean place to shit in the morning, making sure your family is OK, making sure the garbage is out on a Thursday, whether or not that mole is malignant: those are the important things. But art, music, philosophical or existentialist dilemmas or whatever—to me they’re just fuel to make something that’s entertaining. And that’s as far as it goes. There’s definitely not a mission. I’m not trying to make a point. Like, just don’t be afraid of it. I think, like, religion and science definitely plays on your fear, like “be afraid, be afraid of the unknown, be afraid of your lack of knowledge, be afraid of the fact that maybe this is it and you’re not a very good person—you’re a bad person”. I wonder if it’s simpler than that. I wonder if it’s like just don’t be a fuckin’ idiot, and have a good time. I remember going through some crazy philosophical way of thinking a few years ago, and getting hung up on it to the point where it was hard to sleep, blah blah blah. Then I went to jam with a bluegrass band, and a couple of people played banjo, a couple on guitar and a couple rolling about and it was so pure, so separate from that sort of [philosophical] drama that it was so much more real. It was like a real moment. And that’s it for me right now—what is real? What can I touch? What’s real and what’s an illusion? I’m not going to argue that there are not all different ways to view reality, but this is my reality so I want to be happy in mine, so I might as well adhere to the stuff that’s tangible. Not doing drugs really helps, ha ha ha!