Devin Townsend: The Monitor Interview

Devin Townsend is a hard guy to pin down. As soon as you have him in your crosshairs, he wiggles loose. When he's done with a particular musical mood, he just starts a new band, sometimes under a new name. He's released a half-dozen solo albums covering nearly as many styles—and that's not including the side projects.

Devin earned his stripes recording and touring with Steve Vai, then formed the influential extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad, along the way building a reputation for recording impossibly dense, intricately textured, three-dimensional walls of guitars. It didn't go unnoticed by his metal contemporaries. When he put SYL to rest, he stayed busy producing metal's new guard, including Lamb of God, Darkest Hour and Bleeding Through.

Devin's latest endeavor, the Devin Townsend Project, joins his disparate musical identities under one unifier to bring his new conceptual four-album cycle—Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost—to life on record and stage.

Monitor caught up with Devin to talk about the concept and creation of his latest work.

After you ended Strapping Young Lad, you started a successful career producing the biggest bands in modern metal. What got you into writing music again, and what led to the Devin Townsend Project?

My creative process is based in catharsis from whatever is going on in my life. My outlet has always been music, so if I'm in a good frame of mind, that's what ends up being represented. Strapping Young Lad is a very honest representation of what I was going through at that time. When SYL reached the end, it was distressing to some fans and the people involved with it, but it was something I no longer needed to express. It came from the heart and it was honest.

After SYL, I got away from a lot of things. We had a baby. There was a lot of change. During that period I spent two years not knowing how to express myself. When I started learning to create again, I wrote 60 songs and I'm still writing. The Devin Townsend Project represents this period.

How did your four-album concept develop? Is there continuity among all four pieces, in theme or style?

This project is part of the personal discovery that the thing I'm most afraid of is myself. A lot of the dramas you end up engaging in are from a lack of knowledge of who you really are, what you like and what you don't like. I've come to the conclusion that, yes I'm a creative entity, but when it comes to time that doesn't include music, I like food, sex, and quiet. I enjoy laughing.

There's no master plan. Sometimes I'll see a friend who's selling millions of records, but they've had a definite goal from the beginning. Five or ten records later they've defined it to the point that people expect it. They fill a particular niche in your psyche. I don't do that. It's a dubious quality, because not having a goal like that relegates you to a semi-obscure life. However, I've come to the conclusion that anyone who tells you that they know what it's about, they're suspect to begin with. The way I write music is a documentation of the search. So here are four more records about the search.

Where does Addicted fit in the context of the four-album cycle?

The character is me because I wrote it, but I try to objectify it so it's not so heavy and dramatic. On the first record, Ki, the character is unsure about his motivation. Is there some nefarious principle behind heavy music? So the dude decides to put his feet in the water. Every time he allows himself to go to these places that are quite natural for him, he stops. He realizes that he is who he is. What do you truly think the nature of humanity is? There's no good or bad, it's just you.

Addicted is the euphoria that follows. Maybe the true nature of addiction is a disease of the ego where you're so focused on feeling good that you're willing to sacrifice everything to feel that. The idea behind the record is to recognize that the dramas we impose on ourselves are choices, and you're accountable for them. Addicted goes through that process, and the last line says maybe there is nothing more than this. Maybe our connection to reality is that we're terrified that there may be nothing else. So we create things to make ourselves feel better. At first it's terrifying, but then all that's left is us.

On the next record [Deconstruction], the main character is a duality. He faces himself. He goes so far into the chaos, the brutality, because he's convinced he's going to figure out the universe. What he finds at the end is a metaphor for nothing. The nature of infinity is you can go as far and fast as you want, but it's an illusion. You don't get anywhere. You're still stuck in the middle. And the last record [Ghost] is a folk record.

What were your musical influences or stylistic touchstones for these albums?

Each record is a reaction to the one before. I get so deep into them that I get sick of them. What interests me now is usually quite the opposite [of what I just created].

For Ki, I was interested in clean sounds and vintage stuff, bands like Cowboy Junkies, Tom Waits, and stuff from earlier generations like trains, and nature. I collect these bundles of information that interest me over time, and it's a product of all that. I can sustain that thread, because maybe I want to think about trees for a while.

Then after that, it's not that I'm not interested in it; I've purged it. And with Addicted, I want to dance. I got back into trance music like Tiesto, and Mutt Lange production, and EMG pickups. The juxtaposition between male and female vocals.

Now, it's dark, symphonic music, and I want it to scare people; make a statement that is sobering, claustrophobic, with four different singers. For the last record, I see this old phonograph and a guy is desolate on a planet and the only things to keep him happy are these dead voices. It's this happy thing that keeps you company while being completely empty. Like ghosts.

Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering) contributed vocals to Addicted. How did that partnership come about?

We got signed to Century Media around the same time, 1994. It was a small label at that time. Her record was Mandylion, and her voice appealed to me. A lot of times female vocalists tend to be masculine in heavy music, but I love when they're just strong female voices that are clear, in tune and not screaming but able to hold their own against a wall of guitars. It's indicative of my experience with females in general.

The theme of Addicted is not gender specific, so I knew I wanted to have a female presence. I got an email from her with a link to a YouTube video of her singing "Hyperdrive," and she wanted to work together. I asked her to come to Canada, and she ended up singing on everything expect for one song. "Hyperdrive" was a renegade song in Ziltoid The Omniscient. I remember wishing that song could get its due a little more; its potential was sort of lost. Then Anneke sent the video of her performing the song, and that was it.

The Ziltoid project marked the first time you used software exclusively to make a record.

I don't like being a musical nazi, but I do what I do. Often times I don't get what I want from bands, or I'm subversively getting what I want, and that ends up making people mad or frustrated. With Ziltoid, what I did was get Pro Tools 002—not the expensive one—Drumkit From Hell for $99, a microphone and a UA preamp, and Motu Symphonic Choir. The whole rig, including the computer, was under $6000. I sat in the basement and made Ziltoid from scratch, and realized that all I had to do was master the programs. Ziltoid proves that as far as you want to go and as fast as you can work, you can do it. I sat at the computer and started writing, and four months later released it. Everything was modeled and direct, and I did the whole thing in headphones.

How much did you use ReValver modeling software on Addicted?

I started working through it after Ki was finished, and the potential of it floored me. I used a Budda amp for Ki, and I loved it. Up to then, I was working with these old vintage amps, which is the holy grail for me. But you can have the best amp ever, and when you take it live, the chances of it being a consistent sound are about 50% less than something you can run in a full-range system and give to the front-of-house guy. With modeling software, if you have the options to change it, you can perfect it where you just press a button for your heavy guitar sound. Maybe you want the tone stack in a different place, or a different tube, but as you tweak it and save presets, 15 steps are taken out of the equation. As technology advances, I'm just like, learn it. Once you master it, there's no stopping you, and you can do it cheaper and faster.

Has ReValver helped you create tones that would otherwise be difficult to get?

I'm still working on it, and that's the beauty. It's a never-ending quest. With Addicted, I was able to mix my real amp with ReValver. I always track a sound that's direct. Then you take that home and you can fill in your tracks with your modeled sound. Eventually the sound I want is bigger and bigger. Say I want a 6505 on it, so I put that on, but I decide I want something cleaner. I can dupe the direct track and do that. It's like little puzzles and it's a lot of fun. It gives you opportunities that you don't have time for normally at some fancy studio.

I think it's very much in the benefit of any musician to learn the technology. You want a good guitar tone? A symphony? Learn the programs that will give you that. There's no program for talent or intuition, but if you've gotten past "local" status, you have some talent. As opposed to worrying about getting a big producer to do your record, if you don't have the money, invest your mind in learning how to do it. It's trial by fire. Commit to it. That's all I've done.

For the live shows, you're focusing primarily on Addicted and your solo work, but no Strapping Young Lad material?

Honestly, I toured for many years with SYL. We must have toured 60, 70 times. During that time I released five SYL records, and 12 of my own stuff. Now it's time to really make something happen [with my solo work]. If I can grab this bull by the horns and have complete control over it, then I can go anywhere I want. I've been very lucky throughout my career to play with passionate people. I love performing and entertaining people.

Now that we've toured the U.S., we're going to head over to Australia and Europe next to do some festivals. At one of these festivals in Finland we're going to do a Ziltoid musical. Right now it's 99.9% confirmed. The cast is being worked on, but I'm still two or three projects away from that. I have guidelines in my head, though. The next two Devin Townsend Project records are coming out in May, then a boxed set, and then the next Ziltoid record. And it's going to be a big deal for me. It's called Zed Squared. M

Watch the video for "Bend It Like Bender" from The Devin Townsend Project's latest album, Addicted:

Bay Area Backstage spoke with Devin Townsend in the Peavey booth at NAMM 2010:

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