Devin Townsend Interview: Part 1

Devin Townsend Project Blue Shirts

Last month, Devin Townsend and his madcap Project went out on tour with Animals As Leaders and Monuments.  Decibel made sure to catch the show when it came to Baltimore, and we were not disappointed.  Long-lived set favorites like "Bad Devil" and "Regulator" stormed over the crowd, while much of the rest of the evening was driven by new Sky Blue and Dark Matters songs like "A New Reign" and "March of the Poozers."  The energetic audience surged and surfed through every one of Townsend's crazy comments and gummy facial farces. More enlightening by far, though, was our pre-show conversation with Townsend during AAL's soundcheck.  Over the course of 45 minutes, we talked about Townsend's thoughts about his past, present and future career and honed in on his satisfaction and frustration regarding where his music has taken him.  We separated the discussion into more easily digestible (though still sizeable) sections, which we will present to you over the next couple weeks.  We were most interested in the story Townsend told during last part of the conversation, though we think the interview makes more sense in order, so that piece will wait for a little while.

Today, Part 1 of the interview illuminates Townsend's ever more tenuous relationship with the metal scene and his initial thoughts about what that means for his personal musical pursuits.  Enjoy, and tune back in next week for the next segment, in which Townsend reflects on what he feels were his best musical achievements.

How do you feel about the tour so far?

[Shrugs] Twenty-five years of it, man. You know? I spent a nice day yesterday doing fuck-all in a hotel, and it was wonderful. Between recording and money and kids and life and everything, I’ve had two weeks of happily waking up and my daily work entails finding a place to poop and then lunch and then screaming at people for an hour and going to bed. It’s been okay, yeah, I’m enjoying myself.

How much time, this year, have you spent playing shows, and how much have you been able to spend at home?

I haven’t played as much this year as we had, perhaps, in some prior years, but it was a ton of recording and a ton of the pledge campaigns and stuff. The amount of interviews I did over the past… not recently, but there was like two months of just all-day interviews. And family and house and all that sort of stuff, it’s been a real full year. And there’s been some drama, too, which sort of compounded some things that might not have been as difficult. But towards the end of making this new record that I made… I mean, I’ve made so many fucking records.

[Sarcastically] Unfortunately, you only put out three albums this year, right?

Four! [Casualties of Cool and Z2] are both doubles. Casualties is a record that I really like. It’s too long, but it’s really good, right? By doing this professionally, by putting yourself out there, you take good comments and criticisms. The one criticism that I totally agreed with the other day was like, “That fucking guy should just retire!” And I thought to myself, “Yeah, that sounds great. You’re totally right!” I just can’t.

I’m hoping that I can spend a couple years on the next record, because the Ziltoid thing I just did, I think it’s actually really good, but I just didn’t want to make a record! I was like, “Fuck, are you serious, man?” I’d just finished Casualties, I’ve got all this crowd-sourcing shit to do. But we have touring opportunities and the Ziltoid thing is something I really wanted to do for a long time, and having money from the crowd-sourcing to do it was like, now it’s time to make the record, but fuck me, dude…

So you went for it. Was it more for making sure that other people kept earning?

There’s a part of that, for sure. But there’s also a part of me that really wanted to do the puppet thing. But the way that it works now is that, on tour, you’ve got to be promoting something, there’s music and new shows and all this sort of stuff. But if I had a lot of money right now, I would probably not be doing anything. I’d probably be playing on a telecaster and slowly writing something that sounds like Casualties, you know? Maybe do some symphonic sort of stuff.

It’s been twenty-five years of it, man, and like I said at the beginning of the interview, I’m really happy, I really am. I often have to pinch myself, that I even have relevance of any sort. I get to do all sorts of cool shit, I get tons of free toys and it’s great. My family’s healthy and I’m healthy. It’s great. So looking at it from that point of view, yeah, it’s awesome. But to me, I don’t think I’ve been relevant to the metal scene for years. It’s funny because sometimes folks go out of their way to try and defend me, and I’m like, “No, don’t, dude.” I’m making puppets and fart jokes, and it’s not because I’m trying to be provocative or I’m lazy or whatever. It’s just less about music for me now than it is about making Tetris pieces work melodically.

Really?

I’ve been fucking bored for so many years, dude. Now I’ll take ideas, concepts, melodies, or rhythms and I sort of twist them until they turn into something. There are some elements of Sky Blue where it was really an emotional thing for me still, but there’s a part of me that really just wants to be quiet. I love to entertain people, and after twenty-five years and thirty records I’ve got a catalog of shit that can do so, but it’s less so about music now than it was in the past.

Again, that’s not meant to sound disinterested or flippant about it, because I do love music, but my tastes are in this state of flux, and because of the level of activity that we’ve had to maintain to keep everybody’s wages and everything going, I haven’t had a chance just to sort of think about, “Who am I? Where am I at in what I want to do?” I think if I did do that, it would probably be really dark, really quiet, I wouldn’t sing that much, and there’d be a symphony involved. But it’s going to take some time for me to sit with it. And now, like yesterday I had a full day in a hotel, and I’m like, “You should really think about it… Nah…”

Not now.

But I really do like putting puzzles together, right now, in lieu of being really present with my personality and being able to have the time to articulate myself in ways that are more like the 42-year-old introvert that I’ve become. I still have the ability and the desire to do these metal things, and the puppets and weird melodies and structures that aren’t here nor there. There’s another part of me that really likes experimenting with really standard structures. Like Epicloud and all that stuff, it’s all just Maroon 5 shit. But I was interested in it for a while. I was like, “What if we just listened to the radio – Usher and all that shit – and take all those structures and then do your own thing?” So I did. And I like it. And I was still able to be emotionally involved with it, to the point where I listened to it and it really says what I want it to say.

But musically, man, I still really like Massive Attack, folk music, native stuff, things that are really sort of tribal. Every now and then I’ll hear things in metal that I like, but it’s few and far between. I heard some Blut Aus Nord stuff this morning that was cool. And I really like Gojira, but only for a little while, and I love Meshuggah, of course, but only for half a song. So when it comes down to writing now, I’m still really interested in the process, but it’s become – over the past five years, I’d say – it’s been the process more than music for me because I’ve been too busy.

But, again, I love it. It’s just if someone was to drop a lot of money on me right now, I’m not sure what I would do. I think I would probably go on vacation for a long time and I’d play a lot of guitar, and I’d probably learn to be quiet in ways that I’m too predisposed with emails and work right now to do.

So playing is still something that you enjoy.

I love music. I love music. But it’s really less about songs all of a sudden now. I just want to do improv. I think that’s what’s changed. I think there was a period there where I really heard songs, constantly. Now… I don’t know if it’s like a conscious thing that I’ve tried to train myself out of… because music, for me, has never been to sit and write. Patterns get into my head and they loop until they make me crazy so I write it to purge it, but that’s sort of stopped happening.

Now I love just playing and forgetting about it, just letting it go and letting it go and letting it go. But I find that my improv stuff is quiet and really minimal. And I like the support role – for a while there I thought I’d like to play bass, but I’m just not that good of a bass player, you know? But I’m a good guitar player when it comes to articulating my ideas. So I think now it’s this point where I’m trying to figure myself out. But in the meantime, shit, people like the show and there’s a few songs that I still really feel strongly about. So, yeah, we keep doing it. And the fact that I tour with bands that are young or hip or whatever… I don’t know how that happens.

I think your stuff is very well received.

Don’t get me wrong – I put everything I’ve got into it. But the things that I’ve got now are different than they once were. There’s a certain element of what I do musically that is not musical at all. It’s just puzzles. And I really enjoy that. The Ziltoid-type music or Deconstruction-type music, it’s not music, it’s puzzles. Just strictly on a technical level, I really find doing that satisfying, but there’s a lot of folks – even in my management/label/band – that just don’t like the sound of it. So you’re put in this position, “How do I do that?” So, for me, you put voices on it and make a story out of it and kids’ll like it.

But the things that I really am drawn to are like the song on the Casualties record called “Moon.” I think that song’s really good. That’s one of the songs that I’ve done recently – maybe once it gets a little louder I lose interest in it – but that really sparse… like, you hit a note on a clean guitar that lasts for a long time while dissonant things happen, and then the vocals don’t say anything, but the intention says something… I really like that. But I’m in the minority. It seems like people really want you to yell.

You happen to play for an audience who is use to that, and a lot of that audience is not interested in hearing melodic stuff, low key stuff…

But that is also the audience that has allowed me to do the things that are like that. I see some bands that are distancing themselves from their metal, and I’m not comfortable with that, because I still like it! It’s just, the problem is the ways that I can keep my interest in it now are things that are very, sort of, in opposition to what a metal scene would probably require: song-based, the anger, and all these sorts of things. I still like metal, but it’s turned much more into, “Here’s a melodic thing that doesn’t really work with this rhythmic thing, but if you do this and you add this, it kinda does.” I find that fascinating, in a way. So it’s a transition period for me, I think. I was just washing up and I’m thinking about what I think of this tour. And it’s neither here nor there. You’re neither here nor there in your career right now. It’s not like you’re really making a defined statement, it’s not that you’re at the top of your game, it’s not like you’re at the bottom of your game. You’re better than you were, in some ways. You’re completely absent in ways that you maybe once were. I’m happy, and I’m also sad.

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