Devin Townsend is- put simply- a legend in metal. From his work with legendary extreme metal act Strapping Young Lad, to his ambitious solo material, the man has put forth some of the most innovative and unique music I have ever heard. Being a personal musical hero of mine, I was lucky enough to speak with him a few minutes about his creative aspirations, his techniques, his hopes for the future, and cheeseburgers.
Conor: So, how have you been lately?
Devin: It’s been an interesting month because we’re trying to get ready for these four shows in London right, so it’s like we’ve been on tour without actually being on tour and now I’m back in Vancouver and it’s like being home without really being home.
Conor: Because you just got back here, and are heading straight back out again…
Devin: Yeah, then we’re gone.
Conor: So, has it been a good tour so far?
Devin: Yeah, yeah! I think so, yeah.
Conor: Have there been any highlight shows?
Devin: Well, hopefully tonight. It’s hard for me to pinpoint them, because- again- I’ve been so busy doing other things… LA was good, Denver was good… It’s a tour right, I’ve been doing it for twenty some odd years, so the moments that are good are good, the moments that are bad, are just work, you know.
Conor: For sure. So, tonight, you’ll be playing with The Ocean.
Conor: I saw them in April with Between The Buried In Me; they are fantastic live. How did you get hooked up with them?
Devin: Well, we were gonna go out with Protest The Hero, and they had bought tickets to come out from Switzerland, and they had to postpone their tour, but they already had tickets, so they were kinda shit outta luck. So, we needed an opening act and they were available and I really think they’re killer, so one thing led to another, so there it was.
Conor: Do you have any personal favourite songs or albums from them?
Devin: You know, I’ve toured with so many bands, and what happens alot of the time when you tour is that you recognize songs, but you don’t have any idea what the song name is. Songs 1, 3, 5, and 7 are killer, you know!
Conor: Yeah! So, this has been a big year for you; you just completed the second half of your Devin Townsend Project series. Do you have any preferences out of the four albums, and is there anything you would have done differently?
Devin: Uh, I think in terms of preferences, I think they’re all kinda cut from the same cloth, in terms of me liking them. In terms of what I would do differently, I think that if I had the time, I would have loved to have mixed Deconstruction, although I think the mix has turned out well. I think other than that man, it turned out exactly as I was hoping.
Conor: I was told by someone who went to you show in San Francisco about Ziltoid hand puppets that you’re selling at the shows. What inspired those?
Devin: Well, I’ve always liked the idea of the Ziltoid character being a mascot or whatever, there’s definitely an element of doing this over the years where I’m not as interested in myself being the focal point, as I once was, but unfortunately; “Devin Townsend” project, so what are you going to do, right. I think Ziltoid is something for people to focus in on, I think it’s kinda creatively interesting. It’s fun for people to engage in it, it’s a stupid alien thing right, and I think the catalyst for that was probably quitting smoking weed…
Conor: So, Ziltoid is the manifestation of that addiction?
Devin: I think so, yes. He’s almost like a projection of that side of things.
Conor: I’ve heard that ‘By Your Command’ and other songs from Ziltoid (The Omniscient) are the highlight of the show.
Devin: Well, I hope we play them tonight then, if that’s the case!
Conor: Are you using the puppets live, or incorporating Ziltoid’s character into your live show?
Devin: Yeah, we got a screen that goes behind the screen there, so while we’re playing, he’ll just talk alot of shit. The whole intro is just ludicrous, so hopefully people will get the joke, rather than think it’s like, functionally retarded.
Conor: And there’s that Ziltoid comic book, and the upcoming sequel album, Z2…
Devin: Yeah, alot of it is merch-oriented, we have a new management company, and they’re looking for new merch ideas, and because Ziltoid’s kind of like comedic in the first place, there’s alot of options for it.
Conor: That’s why there was a Cars sequel!
Devin: Heh, yeah! But in terms of why it’s being done, it’s just fun, and hopefully people enjoy it.
Conor: And… ‘Epicloud’. A while back you posted something about new material.
Devin: Yeah, I wrote a mess of songs, but what always seems to happen with a record is that there always seems to be a song on a record that defines the theme of it. Like, when I was doing ‘Terria’, there was a song ‘Mountain’ and then I was like: “The album will go in this direction.” But, with the ‘Epicloud’ stuff, we haven’t yet found a song that’s like, the definition of it yet. So, I’m still writing alot of material, and it’s pretty melodic stuff and I think that if I was to record it now, it would be a little too commercial for my tastes, but I feel that the next bout of writing that I’m going to do is going to be a little more left of centre.
Conor: So, ‘Epicloud’ now is currently in the vein of something like ‘Addicted’?
Devin: It’s alot less heavy than ‘Addicted’. I put up a YouTube clip of it just the other day, but I mean, that’s just the current demo of it. What it’s going to evolve into, I don’t really know yet.
Conor: Of course. As for creative process… Over the past few years, the Devin Townsend Project has represented a new side of Devin Townsend in terms of songwriting. You no longer have the pink elephants to turn to for inspiration, now that you have abstained from all drugs. What’s your new procedure for writing material, how do you get new ideas now.
Devin: I think in the past, I used to play guitar alot more, in a way that didn’t involve just rehearsing. Songs would just sort of manifest themselves while I was doing this, that, or the other thing, and other months and months, it would just develop into something. And nowadays, it seems that my life is so active that when I start to have a moment to put my thoughts down onto paper, and the riffs and the series of notes have been ringing in my head, it just sort of happens now. I think it’s cool now, that sense of immediate creative output is very gratifying, because I find it alot easier for me now not to second guess it, and if it is good, then I will just go with it, instead of trying to argue with myself as to whether it’s worth pursuing. It’s now a matter of “that’s cool, let’s go with it”, or “that’s shit, let’s not go with it”.
Conor: Does that way of thinking reflect in your recording process as well?
Devin: I think so. I think recording’s maybe a little different because I have been recording for so long that my recording process is basically on autopilot, for the most part. So, when I have an idea, well I do this, and I do this, and I do this, I just keep sorta picking away at it until it’s right. It’s not like there’s a series of things that I do that’s the same every time, but there’s my techniques and my command over ProTools or whatever that’s at the point where I’m turning knobs and changing levels and eventually if the song’s any good, it starts to take shape. But it’s a slow process, I don’t understand how producers and engineers can throw up a record that sounds great in no time. For me, there’s so much trial and error involved.
Conor: Actually, one of the things that I first really liked about your music was the (Phil) Spector wall of sound technique you use. Can you say a few words about how you get these massive walls of sound in your recordings?
Devin: I think I try to separate frequencies, that’s probably the most important thing. Like, for example, for the guitars, if I want an echo-ey sound for a guitar, I won’t add an echo effect, I’ll just add another layer of guitars, so then if I want echo, I’ll bring that in, so that keeps the dry guitar solid, as opposed to adding stereo delay and letting the sound get mushy. And it’s the same thing with vocals, I tend to multitrack my vocals alot, and I tend to edit them so it sounds like one vocal, but pad them so it sounds like one really epic sounding vocal. Um, there is alot of smoke and mirrors with it involved, to be honest. But at the end of the day, what I do and how I do it is like, pretty much just something I’ve been evolving over the years, you know.
Conor: Out of personal curiosity, how many tracks are usually involved, say in ‘Terria’ for example?
Devin: I don’t really remember! I’d say, in certain parts- if you separate it all, drums, guitars, and all- you would probably have a few hundred, but I mean, for the majority of the record, I’d say maybe forty. But it all depends on what the music needs, right? If it needs layering, then I keep adding onto it until its the way I’m hearing it in my head.
Conor: For people like myself who are getting into making music themselves and want to get their material out there, what advice might you have to give, based on your own life experience?
Devin: I would think, you’ve got to be prepared to deal with yourself, I think that’s the biggest thing, because the more intense this gets, and the more tension that’s put on me, you’re confronted with alot own personal issues in ways that are unexpected, like, how you deal with boredom, how you deal with notoriety, how you deal with criticism, all of these things become more of a focus point in my career than any of the music. I mean, I love writing music, it’s awesome, but it’s only maybe five percent of my life, you know. The rest, there’s interviews, and there’s performances, and for example, take this show; it’s the last show in a tour, it’s a hometown show, and there’s alot of people, blah blah blah. But we’ve been singing non-stop, your throat’s taken a beating, we’re all tired, and there’s things behind the scenes that would be causing everybody stress, yet how do you manage yourself, so that you can get up there and not let that affect people’s perceptions about what you’re doing. I think that’s what separates the men from the boys, right. I mean, it’s easy to be a decent musician and play decent shows, but to cope with this bizarre lifestyle that has no set of rules can bring some people down…
Conor: Favourite brand of coffee?
Devin: Well, I mean, I go off and on with the coffee, right. I mean, I don’t really have a favourite brand, I think an Americano of some kind is good, but I don’t necessarily miss it if it’s not around. I like it when it’s there.
Conor: Well, I was also going to ask your favourite place to get a cheeseburger, but Paul (the tour manager) told me…
Devin: …that I’m a vegetarian!
Conor: So I guess cheeseburgers are a moot point now! How long ago did you make the change?
Devin: Twenty years ago, I guess? I mean, you know, there’s alot of vegetarians I know that are a pain in the cock, because there always just on some sort of high horse about it, right. For me, I don’t smoke weed, or drink or anything, but because I have a very addictive personality, not eating meat is a little discipline for me that can help me stay away from the things that are really going to fuck with me. You know, a little bit of discipline won’t hurt, and I don’t necessarily like the idea of eating animals, they’re cool creatures, however I think they’re delicious, so it’s a strange dichotomy.
Conor: So, I guess ‘Deconstruction’ (the concept album about cheeseburgers) is sort of autobiographical then?
Devin: Everything I do is autobiographical, man. Everything. So, alot of the time when people think I’m just writing about something crazy, it’s not crazy, it’s just a metaphor for something real that means something to me. It might strike other people as being sorta off-the-wall but, you know, I’m pretty sane.
Conor: Any artists or bands you’ve been listening to lately?
Devin: Uh, John Hopkins put out a record recently that I thought was really good. What else… A band called Stars Of The Lid I thought was kinda cool. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant put out a record that I thought was really good…
Conor: Raising Sand?
Devin: Yeah, I liked that alot. Deadmau5 has some cool stuff, I like Gojira, you know. It’s kinda like.. Mute Math has got a new record out that I thought was really cool. Alot of what I listen to has little to do with what I do.
Conor: What do you have in mind for the future, besides the two albums? (Z2 + Epicloud)
Devin: Well, I got the Ziltoid TV thing going that I’m working towards…
Devin: It’s going to be an interview show where I interview bands, do videos and shit. It’s either going to be really cool, or really stupid. I’ve got a ton of work to do, in all honesty man, I’ve been working my balls off. If I had, like four or five days of doing fucking nothing, I would be really happy. But as far as I can tell, that’s not on the horizon! (Laughs)
Conor: Any final words or other things you want to say?
Devin: No, I think if you have something important that you want to say, and no one else thinks it’s important, or very few people think it’s important, I don’t think that makes it any less important. I think you should just keep doing it until people at least get the impression of what you were trying to say.
Conor: Cool! Well, thanks for taking the time to talk; you’ve been great to interview.
Devin: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure to meet you man.