July 10, 2018 Interview – Devin Townsend
There are few artists as free from boundaries and limitations as Devin Townsend. The Canadian prodigy has created some of the most beautiful, aggressive, and creative sounds in a career that goes all the way back to the late 1980s. Most recently, July 6, 2018, saw the release of the Devin Townsend Project’s Ocean Machine – Live the Ancient Roman Theatre in Plovdiv in multiple formats. Performing the beloved 1997 album Ocean Machine: Biomech in its entirety, along with a selection of fan-chosen songs, the virtuoso musician entwines his work with a Bulgarian Orchestra to magnificent effect.
Recently, the guitarist and singer sat down to discuss his latest endeavor. The following is a conversation with Devin Townsend, wherein he expounds on popularity, Ocean Machine, and the bright future still before this effervescent lightning rod of sonic entertainment.
CrypticRock.com – A long time ago, reading the liner notes of the 1997 Strapping Young Lad album City, you said, “I’d like to thank the 13 of you who bought the first album.” This would be the first of many chuckles that your art has caused, and in a good way.
Devin Townsend – Thank you. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Obviously, more than 13 people bought the album, but at the time did you ever imagine that 20 years later you’d be where you are in terms of the amount of people you’ve reached?
Devin Townsend – No. I never imagined it, but I also never thought of it particularly. I’m sure I did because as much as my motivation was never to be, for lack of a better term, a rock star or something. It just never played into my objective here; it was always just to get it out of my system. The fantasy of planning shows, or something, was always there just because I liked the idea of having something that meant so much to me represented properly to people. Thankfully, my motivation has rarely been rooted in, “One day this will be played to a lot of people.” It was more, “I hope that this gets done correctly.” I think that was really the case back then, man. I never really think I thought about it. I’m really happy it did work out, I mean, that’s a happy accident.
CrypticRock.com – Last year you performed 1997’s Ocean Machine in its entirety, marking the 20th anniversary. Reading about you, it seems to have been created at a tumultuous time in your life. It’s a beloved, beloved album; a lot of people always reference that album when your name comes up. Did anything going on in your life at the time help make it so enveloping? What do you think makes that album so special?
Devin Townsend – I had a long time to work on it. It wasn’t rushed at all, and so it was able to sort of take shape over multiple periods of time. When I was a naive kid that had never had any musical experiences – and then throughout my first band, and then through Steve Vai, and then through the Wildhearts, and then through Strapping – the music had a chance to sort of evolve over multiple personality shifts, and I think that really played into it because it acts as a journey.
When I think about the tumultuous times, I think I realized, in hindsight, now after years and years of doing interviews, every record I’m like, “Oh, it was a tumultuous time. Oh, it was a tumultuous time. Oh, Infinity (1998) was tumultuous.” I think that’s just life. Now writing Empath, and writing all these new things that I’m working on now, the tumultuous nature of it doesn’t really play into it now. Because I think once you realize that that is just part of it; it’s part of being an artist, it’s part of the creative process, it’s part of life, it no longer defines it, right?
Yeah, Ocean Machine was tumultuous. It was crazy tumultuous, but I think I also didn’t really know how to manage that at the time. I think, in a sense, you kind of get into it. Oh, the drama. Oh my god, poor me. Now I have a hard time sort of incorporating that drama into the work, because it’s not a tumultuous time. It’s Tuesday.
CrypticRock.com – Yeah, and you are a dad. You look at what bothered you before that compared to now, and it’s different.
Devin Townsend – Fucking right! And you know what’s funny? I did an interview with a guy yesterday, and I totally got the impression that he thought I was just … It’s like, “Oh man, you’re just such a weird dude.” As I’m talking to him I’m like, “Do you have kids?” He’s like, “Nope. Never will have kids either.” I’m like, “Well, okay. There’s a good chance that just fundamentally, you’re going to think that who I am and what I choose to do is bizarre just because we’re on different pages.”
I think if there’s anything that I’ve found defined my career, as of late, is the fact that I realized that I don’t think I’m bizarre at all. I don’t think my life is weird at all. My creative process, I’m an artist and you either relate or you don’t. Ocean Machine was a really interesting period for me, because I don’t think I had reconciled that yet. I don’t think I actually reconciled that up until maybe about three years ago. So I kept struggling with myself, feeling guilty about being who I am, and the fact that you meet people who don’t understand you or think that your creative process just makes you a strange entity. Then you end up believing it, “Well, maybe I am.” After a while it’s just like, “Nah, you’re fucking strange too, dude.” We’re just on different pages of strange.
CrypticRock.com – That’s a good way to put it. That’s true: everybody’s on their own page of strange. Without a doubt.
Devin Townsend – That’s it, man. I think after this point though, I sort of internalized other people’s feelings towards me. Now I’m much more in a position where I’m like, “Ah, you can get fucked as far as I care.” You know what I mean? Everybody’s fighting their own battles, and everybody’s got different methods of doing so. No one knows what they’re doing, right?
CrypticRock.com – Right. Want to hear something funny? Recently, while driving, I saw a Corvette and his license plate was ‘ZILTOID.’ It makes you wonder if he’s paying Devin Townsend any royalties for that. (Laughs) He didn’t look like a Metal guy.
Devin Townsend – Maybe he lost a bet. His friends are like, “Ah, now you gotta get the license plate.” No, I mean it’s funny. Just as a side note, the idea of royalties and all this, it’s funny you were … I go on social media and you see a lot of people, and a lot of it’s the old guard, and I’m now the old guard too, but I mean the older, older guard. The generation before me, the bands that they were in, and there’s a lot of what seems like animosity. “Oh, they’re using my thing. I should be paid royalties.” Or, “Spotify’s taking advantage of me. The industry’s fucked and downloading sucks.” And all this sort of thing.
I get asked a lot, and to continue to get asked a lot, “Well, how do you feel about these things?” I’m always shocked at how much I don’t care. I’m super fortunate, man. I get to do what I want: I got a guitar company that’s making guitars exactly the way I want; my family is healthy and I’m paying my bills. Something in the music industry is allowing me to do what I do, and I think a lot of that is the fact that people have more access to it now. If there wasn’t Spotify, and there weren’t people that chose to put “Ziltoid” on their license plates, and all this new stuff, I don’t think I’d be able to pay my bills. No one would be able to find my stuff.
CrypticRock.com – Looking back, it was a quest to get the Ocean Machine album. It was a real quest.
Devin Townsend – It still is. Well, you know what’s funny? You probably got one of the ones that we provided HMV. I mean, it’s still grassroots. This morning I was talking to somebody on Twitter. He was like, “I can’t find your new DVD. No one online sells it.” I had to actually get a hold of the management, and get a hold of the label, and I’m like, “No one can get the record.” They’re like, “Well, it’s because of this reason, that reason, the other reason.” Maybe what plays into what I do is the fact that it is still a mystical quest to find this stuff.
It’s funny too, because now I’ve got all these opportunities to collaborate with people who are really successful. A part of me thinks, “Oh, that’s cool actually to collaborate with successful people.” There’s also part of me that’s just still sort of thinking that the fact that it’s so underground, and the fact that even though I’ve been doing it for 25 years and it never manifested into commercial success, but I’m not disappointed about that at all. I don’t need more than what I got.
This is something that I’m also really, I think is great. I got a house. I got a car. I got a guitar. I got a pro-tools system. The bills are paid. Every now and then I can go on vacation. Hallelujah! When people say, “Well, you should be more successful. Well, I can’t find the record and I should be able to.” I’m just like, “Yeah, but I’m good.”
CrypticRock.com – So let’s talk about the Ancient Roman Theatre in Plovdiv, the setting for the Ocean Machine – Live the Ancient Roman Theatre in Plovdiv CD/DVD that was released on Friday, July 6th, 2018. What an amazing locale! What went into that process? How did you know it was the place you wanted to do this?
Devin Townsend – It was presented to me by my manager. He had done shows at the same place with Paradise Lost and Opeth, so we got a rapport with them. I think a lot of those other bands, although everybody was absolutely excited to do it, the objective of being with orchestras maybe plays into my work more than some other people. It was another situation where he was like, “Well, we could do this.” I was like, “Oh yeah. That sounds great.” It was great. It was exactly something that I wanted to do.
CrypticRock.com – Did you get to work with the orchestra personally and help arrange things?
Devin Townsend – Yeah, it was a little strange for me because of the time and because of the budget. The orchestra’s parameters for doing this was that the guy wrote his own arrangements, which I was nervous about because of the nature of what I do. It’s so highly-structured that having somebody else come in and just sort of vomit stuff on it was just gonna be really … It was kind of out of my hands, and I’m typically not comfortable with that when it comes to my stuff.
The compromise was, “Look. Let me send you the scores for ‘Truth,’ at least. You can do the rest of it.” We had three days, or two days, of rehearsal with the orchestra. I don’t remember. We had a chance to sort of massage it out between the two of us. I think that it turned out well. What really was a good thing about the experience for me is I know that moving forward with Empath, and The Moth, and everything that I’m currently doing, what does and doesn’t work now between a Rock band and an orchestra. Both of them are huge, fat entities with their arms crossed looking at the other just like, “You can’t go here. You can’t cross this line.” It was a bit of an arm wrestle in terms of just the sonic real estate, but luckily I got to mix it, so I ended up being able to sort of add and take things away from both sides.
CrypticRock.com – Nice. It came out beautifully. Therion did something like that in Miskolc, Hungary, where they had a full choir and orchestra. Their music is very much more on its own classical, but it reminded me of that. I felt that was a really good example of it.
Devin Townsend – Yeah, and I think it’s inevitable too, these two genres meeting. I think, specifically, if that band, or what I do, if your vision is pretty broad in scope, eventually you’re gonna gravitate towards it, right?
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely. Let me see here. You said you were putting your band on hold to do four different things that you were mentioned. What can fans expect other than the unexpected from you?
Devin Townsend – I think that’s probably your best bet, but I also think that if you know what I do, it’s gonna be like that. Some of the stuff I’ve written is very much just like the next step from where you would expect me to go. It’s heavy and theatrical, and epic, and with a heavy amount of electronic stuff. In doing that I’ve realized and it’s an interesting thing for me to talk about. These interviews are really interesting for me over the past little while, because I just don’t have a huge desire just to answer the questions as much as just use it as ways for me to figure out what the fuck I’m doing right now, so forgive me.
Well, I think a lot of it is, as I’ve been writing, although a lot of what I’ve written now is really cool, it’s really cool and really what you’d expect from me, and maybe more complicated or more obtuse, or blah, blah, blah, it’s still me. As a result of that, there’s a part of me that’s just like, “Well, you’re missing something now.” This next thing that you’ve gotta do, you’re not there yet. There’s something about it. What I’m starting to realize is that you can either internalize people’s assumptions of what you are, it’s this weird orchestral over the top absurd thing, and then you sort of chase that in a way.
People want me to be clever, so I guess this is what a clever guy would do, and then you make all this music that, as clever as it is, it’s much more in line with people’s expectations of who you are. Through that I’m starting to recognize, maybe what I am is a little more, perhaps it’s more Pop-structured songs that are three and a half minute long versions of kind of a cross between Metallica and Def Leppard.
Maybe it’s this quiet thing. Maybe it’s this New Age-y thing, which I’ve always been interested in. Or maybe it’s all of that in one place. I think that right now, I’m happily just exploring all these places. The identity of it is really weird right now because it’s not singular yet. Maybe it won’t even be. Maybe the identity of this period of my work is that it’s just a rambling hodgepodge of stuff. We need to work through it to figure it out, right?
CrypticRock.com – Right. Well, in your note to the fans when you described putting the band on hold, you describe yourself as persistently morphing. That stands out, persistently morphing, because that is such a good description of you as an artist. You have always come across to be extremely honest about that. You have avoided any type of negative branding, and you came on the scene hard. Strapping Young Lad, it was like nothing any of us had ever heard.
Basically, if there’s a question in this it’s, how do you think you’ve avoided any of those problems that these other artists experienced when they tried to expand out? Take Anathema, from England. People love them, but there was that period of time where people were like, “Oh, they’re Radiohead now.” They’ve won, and they’ve come out of it unscathed, so how do you think Devin Townsend has avoided that problem?
Devin Townsend – I mean, there’s still time. Maybe it’s just because, from the first album forward, even the stuff I did with Vai, there was so much criticism of it straight out of the gate that I don’t think I was ever really attached to … If you’ve never been super hip, then you don’t have to worry about holding onto that. If people are thinking that you’re a douche straight out of the gate, I mean, then you don’t have to worry about being a douche. You’re just like, “Oh, fuck it. I can do whatever I want now.” Also, from the first record there was really commercial stuff. “Life,” it’s a Pop song! So the fact that it would go between a Pop song and “Oh My Fucking God,” or Punky Brüster (1996), or The Hummer (2006), or Ghost (2011), or Ziltoid (2007), or Terria (2001), or whatever man. Also Devlab (2004). It’s all so all over the place that I think if I do something that is commercial, it’s gonna be counteracted with something that’s just not.
CrypticRock.com – Yeah, that’s true.
Devin Townsend – I think that as a result of that, people get the impression that if I’m doing something commercial, it’s because that’s what I want to do. I’ve always loved that, man. Now I’m in this situation that’s interesting too. It’ll come out soon, but I’m working with people who I’ve made friends with that are super fucking commercial success people. They’re just like, “Hey man, we should write a song together.” I’m like, “Oh, okay.”
My whole thought is just, “Okay, well now what are people gonna think of that?” Is it okay for me to write songs with people who are commercial just because I get along with them? Is that cool? It’s a hard call, man, because I also find that as I have been doing this for so long, my social network, I know all these kind of famous people.
Even though I’m not that guy, I also get along with them, so why shouldn’t you just, if you’re hanging out, if you’re at somebody’s house, why would you not write a song together? It’s weird. We’ll see where the chips fall, and I think they might even play into this next realm of creativity with me because I’ve written some fucked up shit here over the past couple of months.
CrypticRock.com – Wow, it will be exciting to see what happens.
Devin Townsend – But I’ve also written some decidedly not fucked up shit. I don’t know, man. I think if anything, it’s gonna define this particular period of my world. In light of the question, how have I avoided that? I haven’t avoided it because I’ve tried to avoid it. There’s never any, “I’m consciously gonna make sure that I stick to my guns.” I’m just pig-headed and I do whatever I want. The happy accident, swinging back to the beginning of our conversation, is the fact that it ended up being that, “Oh wow, Dev stuck to his guns.” I remember people saying that. “You really have fought to keep your independence.” I’m like, “I actually haven’t.”
CrypticRock.com – You just kind of did what you did.
Devin Townsend – I just kind of did it. You know what I mean? There was no fight at all. I either want to do something or I don’t want to do something.
CrypticRock.com – Well you know what? If you go back to 2000’s Physicist, you had some very hard, complicated songs, and then you had “Material.” It’s true. You’ve always been that way from the beginning.
Devin Townsend – Even these people I’ve been writing with lately, just for fun literally, if at the end of it I find that I don’t like the music, then I just won’t be a part of it. But if I find that I do like the music and it comes out, I’ll get a ton of shit for it, man. Whatever. Whatever.
CrypticRock.com – Love it! Your released your book Only Half There back in 2016. An excellent read, one of the things you said that sticks with you was you remembering the Andrew Lloyd Webber scene in Phantom of the Opera, and hearing that particular song that stuck with you. Do you think that there’s any connection between hearing a musical with a larger than life presentation before you got into all the Rock and Metal? Do you think that that, in the back of your mind, are you leaning towards bigger productions because of that inspiration?
Devin Townsend – I think it has an element to do with it, for sure. Before anything, it was the Star Wars soundtrack. That did it. It’s funny, when I do these interviews recently as well, it’s again, I get the impression that people think that my intention with it, is like I’ve got some sort of master plan. It’s all leading towards this because I want to take over X, right? But it has nothing to do with it. I can’t think of anything more distasteful for me than to be the CEO of a massive company. I love having time in my day to do fuck all.
I love following creative ideas in directions that are unusual, just because it’s compelling; it’s creatively compelling. The more success that I get, the more I have to fight just to do whatever I want. There’s a part of me that pulls back from success just so I don’t have to fight that. I’m not trying to be provocative with my work. I’m not hoping, on some level, by doing all these things, that it’ll become the biggest thing ever. I just don’t care! So, sometimes success is an impediment to me doing what it is that I want. I wonder if I self-sabotage sometimes just so I don’t have to go through that, or to have to explain myself.
It’s like, “Well, why did you do this?” Really the only answer I typically have is just because I wanted to. That doesn’t really fly. You’ve gotta have some sort of, “Well, it’s a metaphor for this, and that, and the other thing. It’s an analogy and blah, blah, blah, blah.” You gotta have a story or else you just come across as being random. But really, between you and me, and the wall, it’s just random. I’m trying to figure out life like we all are, and the byproduct of that process is just tons and tons of music. I really love it!