Devin Townsend - Interview
Devin Townsend is a musical genius. He has achieved more at a young age than most veteran musicians. From his early days as the vocalist on Steve Vai’s Sex and Religion album to heading up the industrial thrash scene with his band Strapping Young Lad, to an endless array of new projects, Devin is one of, if not the most respected man in modern metal. After getting through a very bad period in his life around 1999-2000, Devin is back on the scene with his latest release "Physicist" and the upcoming opus "Terria". I was lucky enough to catch up with him mid-way through his Foot in Mouth European Tour 2001 in Bochum, Germany. And he had this to say:
How’s the tour been going so far? You played some big festivals here in Europe over the past week, how were they?
Both of the festivals went really well, The With Full Force festival [in Leipzig, Germany] was really quite superior and we did a really good job of that one.
Do you feel at home while you are on tour?
Oh yeah, definitely. It’s a life to its own and definitely something to become accustomed too. But, when you haven’t done it for a while you really start to miss it. For myself I find that whatever I am doing I kind of want to be doing the opposite for a little while, its like for the first month or the first 2 weeks I’m in the studio, I’m totally happy to be in the studio, but come the third week I kind of want to be on tour. It’s the same thing with touring, the first two weeks that we are out I’m totally happy, but come about the third week I’d like to be recording again.
Have you been working on any new material since hitting the road?
No, not since "Terria". I finished "Terria" and that just totally drained me.
I heard the tracks 'Mountain' and 'Canada' from "Terria", they are both incredible...
Thank you man, I really appreciate it
... 'Mountain' is seriously heavy.
[laughs] Yeah, 'Mountain' is one of my favourite ones on that record and it seems to be that one that confuses people the most...
...because of all the changes?
...yeah, the whole idea with it is to sort of go on a bit of a journey, its kind of stupid sounding but what I wanted to do is when your listening to it with headphones or something, it's like whoa!...hey...whoa! sending you up and down. Some people have said to me "It sounds a little bit choppy, there’s too many parts" and I’m like "that’s the whole point".
How was the recording of "Terria", a little better than past experiences?
Um,...easier. Every record is stressful, but with "Terria" I think it was easier than the other ones because I didn’t force it, I wrote what I wanted to write when I wanted to write it. When I went to record I took my time, if I didn’t feel like recording I took a week off and as a result it came out sounding like "there it is"...you know what I mean?
What can we expect from the rest of the album?
Well its very lush, it's really big, but there is an intensity that was on "Infinity" and "Ocean Machine" that isn’t on "Terria". "Terria" sounds a lot more ‘come what may’ you know what I mean? Like whatever happens, happens...where "Infinity" was like "God! This is going on now! This is the beginning! This is the ending! aaahhhhh" "Infinity" was full on, but "Terria" isn’t. Even though its heavy, it’s a lot more relaxing, but there is enough ‘heavy’ on there to be heavy enough. It’s a pretty well rounded record, and there’s a lot of things in it, like a lot of noises and sounds and shit like that.
Coming to "Physicist", that was a major turning point in your life...
Yeah, yeah..."Physicist" was a hard one for me. The recording and the writing and the mixing and everything on "Physicist" was done at a time of my life when I was in a really bad state of mind. I’ve been in a bad state of mind for "City" [Strapping Young Lad] and "Infinity" and "Ocean Machine" but with "Physicist" it was like kind of hopeless, I didn’t feel like recording, I didn’t feel like writing, so I think with that in mind the record succeeds on the level that it sounds like that, it sounds hopeless...but, as far as technically and musically there’s problems that I have with it. But I think I made up for it with "Terria". "Physicist" was like "holy fuck, ok", its great for playing video games to, it’s a pretty heavy record, it's great, it sounds great, it's got cool layout...it’s a cool record. I’m pretty egotistical about my own music and sometimes I think "that’s a real classic record", and "Physicist" was a good record, but "Terria" is a classic.
Would you say you are a different person from when say, "City" was released?
Oh yeah, totally. I’m on a fistful of medication every morning now as well...
...and you’re cool with that?
...yeah absolutely. At first it was a little strange because you’re whole way of thinking changes, but what I found what it did was streamlined the way I think to the point where it gave me some kind of control over what I was doing. "Terria" as a result has a lot of songs that are very much like "that’s what I think", whereas with "Infinity" it was like "what do I think?".
Going back to your time with Steve Vai, are you proud of the work you did?
...I’m proud of the singing I did...yeah
...you were totally restricted musically at that time, was that what spawned Strapping Young Lad?
The "Sex and Religion" record was directly responsible for Strapping. Before "Sex and Religion" the music I was writing was like "Ocean Machine" and "Terria". When I came out of the "Sex and Religion" era of my life it was just like, singing someone else’s lyrics, singing to someone else’s music, I was on the cover of the record. They did a video for me, well we did two video’s...but in one of them they tried to make me look like a sex symbol, but I just don’t exude sex. Its like some people when they dance you’re like "he’s got a sexy thing about him right"...but I don’t. As a result of that and being portrayed in a video like I’m supposed to be like that made me feel like a fucking fool. So I came out of that situation like "I hate it, I hate everything, I hate you, I hate you..." And that was Strapping. So Strapping was like an accident...
...like a progression?
...yeah, but it's like a progression that I have been working against for a long time because I don’t want to be 50 years old and being represented by something that was an accident when I was 23.
A lot of fans want to know the future of Strapping...
Well, what we are doing at this point, because it's been 3 years since we’ve toured, this tour is specifically designed to say "Hey, we’re still alive"...still same musicians. It is a mixture of "Physicist" and Strapping and "Infinity" and "Ocean Machine", but there is more Strapping primarily because there’s three records to choose from, but who knows what will happen in the future? There are options being thrown around everywhere, but at this point we are still playing a rather heavy set.
Are "Infinity" and "Ocean Machine" one-off projects? Or do you have plans for new releases?
"Infinity" is definitely a one-off, there will never be another "Infinity"...as for "Ocean Machine" I don’t want to ruin it by doing another one. It’s the same way I feel about Strapping, unless I can do something that is better I’ll just do it under a different name.
What types of music did you listen to growing up? Who were the biggest inspirations?
Everything. I grew up in a musical family, there were a lot of musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats. My Mom and Dad were into Blue Grass and folk music, but at the same time we had stuff like The Moody Blues and Jimi Hendrix. When I hit about 12-13 I started listening to Slade and the Eurhythmics, then when I hit about 16 Judas Priest’s "Defender’s of the Faith" came out and I was just like Whoa!...that got me into W.A.S.P and Iron Maiden. It was the mainstream power metal scene that I was into at the time. I really got into Jane’s Addiction when I was about 18, him [Perry Farrell] and Björk were my biggest vocal inspirations. Then when I was working with Steve [Vai] I got really into experimental like ambient music, like noise music. Then toward the end of Steve when my anger started building up I started listening to Fear Factory, I think they were about the first band that introduced me to Thrash, so from there I got into Carcass and some Black Metal stuff. It just got progressively heavier, I was trying to find the heaviest music possible. But then things changed and for instance last year I got really into that group Ween and The Young Gods and Miles Davis...stuff like that. Everything. But it's all been dependent on my mood, sometimes I was solely into this and other times solely into that, because I get so obsessed with the music I listen to, I think the music I write is pretty authentic. Even though I wasn’t raised with the idea of Thrash Metal I think that "City" specifically was legitimately a good Thrash record because I was so into it at the time.
With the music you write, you don’t seem to care about fitting in to any genres. Is that ever a concern to you during the writing process? Or do you just do what you want?
Yeah, that’s the only way I can do it. I find myself to be a slave to whatever is going on in my head. I think that one of the only reasons I have a career is because of that, because I’m like "fuck it", I’m going to do what I want to do. It does confuses people, but I think eventually the people who like me will be like "ok, well we expect that" For the people who don’t know or like me and what I do I’m sure its confusing as fuck, but I guess I’m not writing the music for them anyway! [laughs]
Now that I have the opportunity I like to tell you that you are a major influence on myself and musicians all over the world. Do you ever think of yourself like that?
Thank you man, that’s cool, but I don’t think you can think of yourself like that. I think a lot of it has to do with a pretty selfish attitude, like when I’m out on tour I’m meeting people all the time and I’m like "yeah hi, how are you going?", but at the end of the day I’m still very aware of where I am good and bad as a person and so keeping that in mind I don’t think I could ever fool myself into thinking I’m something I’m not. Like when someone comes up to me and gives me a really heavy compliment, the compliment you gave me is great but if somebody comes up to me and says "your this" or "your that" I’m like "no I’m not". Please understand I’m just a fucking musician. I think it's great that I’m influencing young musicians like yourself, but for myself I just follow what happens for however long that lasts...I guess we’ll see what happens.
On your website [www.hevydevy.com] you mentioned you were interested in joining a pre-existing band. Did that ever come to fruition?
Well, yesterday I thought I wanted to be a monk [laughs]...
...[laughs] I guess that pretty much sums that one up
You started HevyDevy Records to take control of your own projects...
Yeah, I did it for a lot of reasons, number one by having my own record label I make a lot more money per disk than if I was signed to a label. That does mean there is a lot more work to be done, but by making more money per disk I don’t have to sell that much in order to facilitate what I want to do, and that’s more important to me than selling a lot of records.
...are you planning to sign other bands to HevyDevy?
I produce bands, and the bands that I produce we sell on the internet through HevyDevy, but as far as being responsible for another band it doesn’t interest me at all because I know how I felt towards record companies. It all comes down to money. If you don’t have the money to support a band to the level they need to be at then I don’t think it's even worth trying, because all you are going to do is fuck things up. To a large degree that happened with certain projects of mine.
So you are in control of all your own projects now?
Yeah, except for Strapping.
Strapping’s owned by Century Media?
Yeah, and always will be. That can’t change. They own the publishing. But because I went through this supposed ‘mental illness’ and went back onto these medications, I just can’t do it and if I can’t do a record then I’m just not going to do it. There’re aware of that. Its like "I’m sorry man, but that’s how it is. You got three records". If they try to force me to write another record I’ll just fart on a cassette for fucking 45 minutes or something and give it to them [laughs]
So whats the next step for you from here?
I don’t have a clue [laughs]
...just here today and that’s about it? [laughs]
Pretty much [laughs] I don’t have a memory so I don’t care. I just try to go with the flow.
Thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate it.
No problem man, thank you.
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