Rolling THAC0: A Normal Conversation With Devin Townsend

Devin Townsend needs no introduction. That being said, for sake of formality, we’re introducing Canada’s most inspiring musician as Canada’s most inspiring (and slightly off-kilter) musician. Townsend should’ve never created his newest album, Transcendence. He was already on to something else–namely Casualties of Cool–but then something ordered his brain in Townsend’s general disorder. So, he cleaned his closets, then the rehearsal room, and then blew our minds with Transcendence, an album that speaks to both Devin Townsend and The Devin Townsend Project albums. In fact, it’s somewhere between spheres of Townsend’s various and intrepid creations. The only thing different this time, is, at the end of the day and when all is said and done, Townsend’s back office business will be ready for more disorder. So, if Townsend promises to never make another progressive, hard, metallic, atmospheric, contemplative album again, just wait a few years. His spaces will eventually devolve into disarray, prompting Townsend (and crew) to craft another album out of the proverbial ether. We sit down with the madman in a moment of clarity to reveal just what went into making Transcendence.

OK, so cleaning your room had a major role in the creation of Transcendence, right?
Devin Townsend: It seems inconsequential. Knowing my closets are a Gong Show, it really did something for me to go through all my closets and clean everything out. Go the jam room, and clean it all out. Go to the storage space, and go through every box. That purge, the exercise, the letting go of control played into the new record. All these things that were causing me problems were well within my own doing. Certain things you can never control. But by stepping out [of my comfort zone], it became a real purge in a practical sense.

How were the songwriting sessions this time around? It sounds like classic Devin.
Devin Townsend: Typically, the songwriting would be different for this record, as opposed to the others, by virtue of, for example, on Ziltoid I wanted to write something really complicated, but because I want to move quickly—it’s important for me to get it out and move on it. The faster the better—there were parts that could’ve been refined further or they could’ve been cooler. I just didn’t have the patience for it. I was like that part is supposed to be complicated, so there it is: complicated. Now, move on. It wasn’t necessarily the best complicated thing that could in that spot—almost like Cliffsnotes—but I’d move on. Then, I get into the mellow stuff and so on. From there, I’d have a record. That’s not the downplay the effort that went into it, but for this record, in those sections, I’d bring it to the band and say, ‘Look guys, here’s what it’s supposed to do. This is how it’s supposed to make me and the audience feel. And this is how it interacts with the parts prior and after. That’s why it exists. It’s not complicated because we’re trying to jerk off here. It’s complicated because, in my mind, I’m thinking: how can we make it cooler? Here’s the basic chord structure, this is what I think it should do, be angular or in thirds. Dave and Mike, can you think of something cool there? Double it or whatever. I’ll be back tomorrow.’ Like on ‘Stormbending’, there’s a riff turned out way cooler than I had the patience for. So, that’s how this album was written compared the last few albums.

Just how prolific were you?
Devin Townsend: I wrote 60 songs for this record. I write so much. I’m not saying it’s all good either. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I wake up and I write. It just comes out. I organize it subconsciously: I’m like, this song makes me feel this; this song makes me feel like that. Eventually, themes evolve and it then becomes about excavating things, like an archaeological dig. It’s like, ‘Oh, this one’s Tyrannosaurus. Or, oh, this one’s a chicken.’ ‘Truth’, the first song on this record, was originally recorded for the 1998 album Infinity. But my vision for that song was much grander than I was technically able to achieve at the time. In a sense, ‘Truth’ was the roadmap for Transcendence. It’s much closer to where I think it should be, on this recording. And there’s something about being able to clarify a statement that meant so much to me 15 years ago. It metaphorically summarizes the rest of the content.

And how invested are you in the songs you write? Clearly, some songs hit the chest harder than others.
Devin Townsend: For me, it’s all emotionally driven. Part of this recent period for me is the recognition that I’ve had—apparently—this massive ego for my entire career. Everything I write has this massive significance to me, but ultimately it’s all about my own trip. As I get older that becomes less and less interesting. At the same time, I think people who listen to what I’ve done or what I do, typically can recognize if I’m invested in it or not. My litmus test for whether or not a song or a record is working is really about my visceral reaction to it. If I react to it, then it’s correct, for me. That reaction could be repulsed by it, it could make me cry, it could irritate me, I could be loving it, it’s pretty much all the same. I mean, I write a lot of stuff I don’t really even like. But following that path, if a song irritates me and it doesn’t, so then it’s finished. Or if this song is supposed to make me cry and it does, well, it’s finished. That vision to what the emotional reaction should be is there from the get-go. If it gives me a reaction, then I hope it’ll contribute something to their world.

So, wait, “Truth” is the opening track on Transcendence. It’s a re-tool of the Infinity “Truth”. What’s the story there?
Devin Townsend: It sounds like an opening track to me. It’s so bombastic. I’ve been doing this style for a long time. I evolve and have evolved, in a lot of ways, that is much more immediately suited to what I was doing last. Like Casualties of Cool, which was the last thing I did, or the symphony I’m working on next. These are things more in line with who I’ve become. At the same time, the whole DTP and its aesthetic of modern hard rock, that’s more of mixture of Black-era Metallica and Enya or Def Leppard. That’s really what it is. Since the beginning. When I was 22, it was utmost significance to me. But I’ve been doing it for so long the fight, at this point, is get it right while also maintaining interest in it. A lot of the time, as bands or musicians get older, it’s all too easy to say, ‘Oh, this is our heaviest album yet’ or ‘I love this!’ But if they were honest with themselves, they’d say, ‘I’m sick of it. I’ve changed.’ You become a parody of yourself if you keep trying to mine that vein because it pays the bills. Like if I were Godflesh, I wouldn’t want to do Streetcleaner for the rest of my life. Or with me and City. I’m not interesting in doing that forever. When I ran out of inspiration for Strapping Young Lad, I ended it. Plain and simple. It wasn’t easy trying to convince the audience I was still 24 and pissed off. I wasn’t. Things had changed. If something so vital is no longer accessible, then it’s no longer an option. With DTP, we’re getting to that point as well. However, we’ve discussed me being more open to letting go of control and redefining the connection to myself has provided a template for me. That it still has life left in it. After this, who knows? The point is this: this record is very solid for me, and that was very surprising.

OK, so Devin Townsend Project will end after Transcendence?
Devin Townsend: I don’t know. I probably would’ve discontinued DTP a long time ago if I didn’t like the logo so much. I think, ‘This is a really good logo. I can’t quit this one yet.’

Is this record representative of you now or the Devin that wrote “Truth” in 1998?
Devin Townsend: This record is kind of a strange eureka moment for me. It’s like, ‘Oh, I forgot I had played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid.’ Well, until puberty hit. Then, all my characters were trying to hump the orcs. I write as unconsciously as I can because I really enjoy playing. It flows easiest for me if I don’t second guess it. So, to have a band that will help refine parts to be cooler than they are to begin with results in something that almost summarizes what I’ve been trying to do for the past 10 years. At least, musically in one place. For me, I’m very satisfied with it. I feel it the way it makes me feel. Transcendence is accurate in ways I had not anticipated.

It sounds like you’ve given up some of the reins this time around. If only a little.
Devin Townsend: It’s more like getting the right people to help out now. I need an engineer who has better ears than me. My ears are shot. If you put together a team whose strengths are better than yours, and then you put in your strengths, then what comes out of it, for no other reason than for an experiment, is really cool. That’s what this record is: an experiment put to music.

Transcendence sounds like a moment in time. A piece of music along a continuum. Where does it go from here?
Devin Townsend: What happens in the future? Where does this go? What is my next step? Well, this is a project. All of it. For every record, its theme is what fuels things. For Ziltoid, it was a puppet and its absurdity. It was a cool thing in my mind between Dark Crystal nerdy stuff and quantum mechanics and heavy metal. That whole theme propelled Ziltoid to where we had to use certain colors and fonts. It was the key. Every record has a key. Everything pyramids to where there’s no option. It is what it is. So, Transcendence is about this group of guys, and this emotional release and ease of control.

What happens next? There’s a lot of fans waiting with bated breath to see what you do next. I’m sure you’re aware of that.
Devin Townsend: Where am I headed next? I’m really into the Casualties thing. I’m really into the symphony. I’m really into playing bass. I’m getting into grinding, crusty music. It’s getting dirtier for me as I get older. As for DTP, my peripheral vision is limited. I’m still trying to figure out if DTP is this or that. I keep barfing out records in hopes that one hits the mark. What I think happened with Transcendence is I’ve recognized that DTP is a lot more proggy than I had given it credit for. I think that’s because I’ve never really enjoyed progressive music, in its typical form. On this record, with this group of guys, it makes sense for it to be safer, more controlled sonically in terms of the frequency range. It turned out way proggier than I had anticipated.

** Devin Townsend Project’s new album, Transcendence, is out now on HevyDevy Music/Inside Out Music. The incredible album is available HERE on CD and LP.