Devin Townsend Interview: Part 2

When the Devin Townsend Project played their string of dates with Animals As Leaders a month ago, it was clear the show was not the Hevy Devy indulge-fest that the band’s past headlining shows have been.  Conspicuously absent was the pre-show Ziltoid Radio craziness that have accompanied Townsend’s stage show for a few years.  Townsend worked hard to engage the crowd in his version of a metal show, which at this point is often just a veil of distortion laid over some very pretty, occasionally shoegazy songs.
Last week, we ran the first part of our conversation with Mr. Townsend.  This week, you’ll read his thoughts on why Sky Blue sounds the way it does, the joys and frustrations of changing musical tastes, and the difference between an artist’s “best” work and his “favorite” work.  Tune in next Friday for the conclusion of the interview, in which the man discusses his good-faith attempt at being an industry whore and how he would blow through $200,000 if he ever had the chance.

Sky Blue really feels like the peak of what you were doing with Addicted  and Epicloud.

Thanks.  The thing is, amidst all this humming and hawing that I’ve done in the interview so far, the one thing that remains and will probably always remain is my intention.  My intention is to say something beautiful or something epic.  The moments that I’ve had of spiritual or emotional significance are such that I’ll always be trying to get closer to that goal.  I think that I’m emotionally retarded in so many ways that the only way that I can express some things that are healthy for me, like sadness or happiness or anger or fear or whatever, is always going to be through music.  Sky Blue was an opportunity for me to represent some of the more melancholy bits that I think I withheld through Epicloud and Addicted because I was convinced, “No, you just have to ignore those parts of your nature.”

No, those aren’t melancholy records.

The problem with those records, in my opinion, is those moments were there during it.  I can rationalize it, in that it was an intentional decision to make positive statements in the face of those negative things, but now I’m at a point, like, “Just say what you’re gonna say.”  Things aren’t always peaches and cream, so say it in a framework that people can understand.  A lot of times, that is more standard structures, and I’m not knowledgeable about them, so I tend to listen to popular music to see what’s a structure.  Okay, it seems like it starts with a chorus.  And I’ll just write it down – chorus, pre-chorus, modulation – and then I’ll just take the same statement that I’ve been making for twenty-five years and put it into that form.  I think that I managed to summarize it with Sky Blue, and I think I managed to make the Deconstruction-type puzzles more palatable with Dark Matters.  But from here, it’s like I’m tapped with that, I’m sick of it.  So now, like I said, if I had a ton of money, I’d probably disappear for a couple years, but I’ve got to maintain it, even if it’s for the sake of my guys [band, etc.].  So there’s a lot of things that we’ve got planned, but I’m not going to do any recording until I’ve figured out what I want to do next.

It’s cool to hear you talk about the transition.  I went through a total shift in the music I was listening to about ten or twelve years ago, and that hasn’t happened again, but the idea that it could is pretty exciting.

Yeah, it really has.  A lot of times, I think artists tend to have to rationalize it in interviews, but for me, I just hope that I can give a preface to it, so when it does happen it’s not out of the blue.  The only sure fire answer to all this stuff is that I don’t know.  I’m changing, and I don’t know how I’m gonna change.  I changed… what, seven years ago?  After Ziltoid and right before Ki.  And now it’s really changing again, but in a way that is not as dramatic as it once was.  Back then, it was kids and sobriety and Strapping [Young Lad], and I had a lot to say.  Now there’s a change happening, and I don’t know how much is needed for me to say.  A part of me, job-security-wise, is like, “What the fuck do you do?”  Because you can’t just get out there and lie to people and be like, “Here’s more of something like Epicloud, here’s more of something like Strapping!  Please don’t let me not be able to pay my mortgage!”

Don’t drop me!

But I think that’s really the risk:  to get to that point where you’re just scrambling to put out things just so that people don’t stop feeding the machine.  But I tell you, man, I’d just rather have a job if that’s what it comes down to.  Because I’m wired for music, and I could see myself in the future doing really beautiful things, for one, and symphonic things… I’d love to write a symphony.  And I’d love to make an album full of heavy lullabies, or something Zepplin-y.  But until it solidifies, the weird thing with this job is that you have to keep pimping yourself, keep selling yourself.

A lot of musicians also teach music; do you see that as a likely possible path?

Maybe not one-on-one.  It’s less about technique for me and more about ideology, I think.  I can see myself talking to people.  I went to Australia for guitar clinics a couple weeks back, and I ended up playing clean guitar while just rambling on, and it seemed like people drew some conclusions from that, that I think helped their music more so than if I said, “This is an A chord, this is a G chord.”  I could see myself doing that, but I could also see myself cooking for people or helping in some way.

I want to learn more about being a functional entity.  I think a lot of that comes to a head when you’re in a job where the focus of your entire world is you.  It’s weird.  I don’t consider myself more important than anybody else in my crew, yet last night I had my own hotel room.  The other guys slept on the bus.  And I really loved it, I was like, “Thank god, I’m fucking tired!”  But, at the same time, I came back on and I saw Dave, our drum tech who had slept on the bus, and I’m thinking to myself, “Why did I get that?”  That’s bullshit.  So it’s a weird period here, where I want to help, but at the same time I’m just fundamentally in a different position than others just by allowing the band to have my name.  So I’m trying to figure it out.  In the meantime, I’m really hoping that people like the show.

It took seeing you play for me to totally get the original Ziltoid songs and to totally dive into Epicloud, so I think the show is pretty important.  It’s a great way to increase that communication.

I agree.  I hope so.  I think I know so.  We went to Helsinki and London and did some Casualties of Cool shows where I didn’t have to speak, there was no production, I got to play tele, and it was much more about improve and music and I left those shows going, “Wow, I really enjoyed that!”  It was less about having to be an entertainer with puppets and things, and more about just playing my guitar, which is something I think I miss, and have been missing more recently than I anticipated.  Then again, you get rose-colored glasses when you’re doing one show versus seven hundred, right?

And you’re not including any of that material into a DTP show?

No, no, no.  It’s a metal show.  There’s an element of just how different that stuff is.  We’ve tried in the past to incorporate stuff from Ki – “Disruptr” or whatever.  It might work in the future, but this tour, we have pixel screens and all new gear and a new member on stage, new instruments… Everything was so new, man, that I don’t want to also have to compound that with trying to elbow Casualties or Ghost into the set.  Plus, there’s thirty records, and we get an hour.  Good luck!  I just released four fucking records… how do you make this work?

Do a medley where every thirty seconds something changes.

It’s a lot of information, and to be honest, I’m a lot less mentally interested in sorting out those things than I once was.  There was a time where I’d really put my mind to it and figure out how to make it all work, and right now, when I get some time off, I’m not fucking thinking about that, man.  I just want to watch a movie and chill out for a bit.  Fundamentally, other than trying to say something that resonates with that part of my spiritual life – not religious life, fuck all that – I just want to be honest with people.  I don’t want to lie to people and say, “Hey this is the best thing I’ve ever done!”  Or, “Do this, because it makes perfect sense for you, the audience, to spend money on stock shares or whatever.”

For me, if somebody said, “What do you think of Z2?”  I think it’s actually really fucking good!  Is it the best thing I’ve ever done?  Hell no!  But it’s really good because it turned out accurately, in the face of the frame of mind and a time that was pushing for it to be anything but accurate, anything but honest, anything but good.  My pride in it is that it turned out really good in a period where it could have just been a load of horseshit.  But I’ll go to the wall for it and say it’s fucking great.  It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done because it wasn’t the best part of my musical years.  The best things I’ve ever done were fifteen years ago.

You think?

I think so.  But I think my favorite thing I’ve ever done is Casualties.  It’s a weird dichotomy.

What would you consider the best things you’ve done?

City and Ocean Machine.  Maybe Infinity.  I think there’s been moments on the rest of it that are really cool – moments on Accelerated [Evolution], on Synchestra, Terria, Ki – moments on all those that were really good, but I think it’s been a long time since my mind has been on fire in a way that would resonate with the audience.  For me personally, that’s fucking great.  I’m so psyched that I don’t feel like that anymore.  I’m psyched that I don’t feel like the kid who wrote City or Ocean Machine or Infinity.  I learned what I needed to learn from those records, thank god!  But there’s a fire that comes with being a confused kid that people will always [connect with].  That’s why Streetcleaner and Godflesh and all the seminal records from bands are important… Ride the Lightning, all that shit…

All the demos and Side Ones of debut albums, right?  Everything after that is shit…

In a sense it is, because you’ve kind of used up that fire.  As an artist, you’re constantly put in a position financially of trying to convince people that your new shit holds a candle to that stuff, and in the ways that people want, I’m from the mindset that it won’t, it doesn’t, and it never will.  But as a human and as an artist, what I’ve done with Casualties, what I did with parts of Ki, and what I hope to do in the future is perfect for me.  Everything else I’ve done since Infinity is essentially discussing the fallout of that period of Steve Vai and my kid years.  Addicted, Deconstruction, Epicloud, Ziltoid – they’re not about songs.  They’re about the past.  But Casualties isn’t; Casualties is about the present.  I think that if the dominoes of fate will allow, then I’ll be able to support myself and my family being honest from here on out.  And if it doesn’t, then hey… Z3 coming soon!

But as much as it may feel like I’m downplaying the significance of some of the things that I’ve done, it’s not meant in terms of my own feelings towards the record.  Every record that I’ve done, other than the red SYL record and Physicist, were exactly what I meant to do and they meant a great deal to me.

The dedication in Sky Blue and the lyrics seem to carry a clear meaning.  Was there particular stuff that you and the band were going through?

Lots of people dying.  Pets dying.  Lots of death.  What I’m finding now is that you’ve got to find an angle to write.  I had to find an angle for Ziltoid – why does he go home?  Because I’ve gotta get rid of him, I’ve gotta get him out of my fucking head.  He’s driving me crazy.  That’s why Z2’s about what it’s about.  What about Sky Blue?  It’s about death.  It’s about learning to look at it and get a much better emotional grasp on mortality.  But it’s an angle, still.

In the beginning – City, Ocean Machine, Infinity – the angles were a lot more general.  It was about, “Now I’m pissed off!  Now I’m confused!  Now I’m on drugs!”  It’s gotten so specific now because I’ve run out of those first-time experiences, those really, “Wow, I’m exploding with inspiration because I just did mushrooms or just got my heart broken.”  I’ve done it!  So what the fuck do you write about now?  And the only thing that comes from the heart is picking up the guitar, and this song showed up.  “Bones” from Casualties, or “Daddy” or some symphonic crazy idea that I have.  The things that you don’t rush, that you don’t define.

But the music industry is really fucking tough, right?  You can’t wait for seven years for those moments to come.  So I keep finding angles, one of which is those things I mentioned with Ziltoid.  Another one which has really been fruitful for me is formulas.  Find structures from pop music and then adhere your sentiments to them.  Find melodies that harmonically don’t work with other harmonies and melodies and make them work together.  That has provided me with a good five years of material.  But I’m bored of it now.  [What comes] next is really up in the air because I can’t lie to people.