|Seven hours before his headlining set at Reggie's Rock Club in Chicago, IL, Devin Townsend and I sat down for a chat. We met in the back lounge of his tour bus, strewn with guitars, laptops, overflowing bags, a Roland practice amp, and stamped Devin Townsend picks that looked almost like collectors' items. I resisted stealing one.|
It was a grey day—appropriate for a man who has rebranded himself to the world in a grey suit, showed up to our interview wearing a dark grey hoodie, and in the chill autumn midnight after the show signed autographs in a great, grey parka. Leaning back into his seat, with fingers tucked into armpits and a knit cap covering his shaved head, Devin looked a little weary. And who could blame him? He's been touring the nation for weeks, the world for months, and has released four full-length albums in barely two years. But once the conversation turned from typical tour banter to the themes underlying the arc of his career, Devin's words lit up with passion and insight. Unfortunately, the first part of our discussion is lost, as my handheld recorder has finally given up the ghost. But if any one interview had to destroy it, it might as well have been Devin's.
We pick up with the fuel that feeds Devin's creative flames, now that (most of) his demons are banished from the fireside.
Devin Townsend: The things that define what I do are things that I don't understand. But I do feel them. So I'm just trying to put across that feeling more than anything like a particular statement or whatever. A lot of people—specifically religious type of groups—feel that they've got an answer, right? And I don't believe anybody has an answer. But I think we're all talking about the same thing, if you know what I mean. So I think that what I'm trying to do is make those feelings felt rather than trying to define it. And if the things that inspire me to do that lead me in directions that are crass, heavy, brutal, pretty, stupid, or whatever, I'm just rolling with it. I just think that if I get it out there and say, "Well, this is where we were," [then it's just another extension of the exact same shit I've been talking about the whole time. If anyone says, "What are you talking about?", well, [chuckles] I have no idea. But it feels something like that [points], though.
Maximum Metal: Well, then, on a similar note, in this project of four records and this grand plan that you laid out, it was very much a self-exploration and an introspective journey that brought you to these different conclusions. And ultimately the result is neutral, in a way.
Devin Townsend: Totally, yeah.
Maximum Metal: And I've seen some of these same themes being explored since I started listening back around 'Physicist'. For instance, I've been hearing you just scream the word "burn" for a decade. Does that word have a different meaning for you now than it used to? Or in this same exploration of these themes, are you just circling around it?
Devin: Well, as I said earlier about Chicago, I like the smell of smoke—
Devin: I think before I resolved my religious hang-ups, there was some kind of fear of hell, right? And then once I just started thinking, "Well, that's all bullshit," I thought that I liked the idea of burning your hang-ups. Part of the whole 'Deconstruction' thing was realizing that destroying your hang-ups wasn't an option. It's this perpetual hamster wheel that you get into trying to change the past. So 'Ghost' is about learning to live with it and merging with it and accepting that you've got to forgive yourself for being...you. Specifically if your motivations from the beginning—however skewed they've been along the way—have always been to try and do good things. But, shit, I think 'burn', on a basic level: it's just easy to scream.
MM: Hah. True, it does sound good as a metal word.
Devin: Totally. It's either that or 'Doooom'.
MM: I remember listening to the newer Celtic Frost stuff for the first time and hearing the word 'Flesh', like, 18 million times. And he sounds great singing it, right?
Devin: Oh, yeah, man. [half-whispers] 'Fleesssh.' Totally. And I think what I was trying—hopefully—to do with 'Deconstruction' was even underline that: that through all this existential crisis I've been batting around for so many years, that there really is an awareness that I'm just fucking around. And I think that's the healthiest part of this whole four-record thing. When we're talking about a 'master plan' and laying out these records, it really didn't work that way. I was just going to make one record, and I found that I just had too much material. And the brass tacks of it was that whenever I was doing interviews I was having to rationalize things that I couldn't articulate. They're like, "Well, why did you quit Strapping Young Lad?" "Well, I didn't want to do it anymore." Well, that's not going to cut it, you know? There's got to be some sort of drama, there.
So, then as I quit doing drugs and drinking and had a kid, I just started thinking. And because every time I read an interview with myself I'm saying different things, I obviously have no real clue what I'm writing about, so I might as well just go on autopilot and let it become an audio representation of what I'm feeling. Hopefully by the end of it, when I go do something else next, there won't be as many questions. Because it'll be like, "Well, there it started with 'Ki', then went on to 'Addicted!'.
Fear the dark, your own dark, then getting over your hang-ups and realizing everything's an addiction on some level because you're trying to compensate for this, that, or the other thing. Then deconstruct it and try to figure out why you're trying to compensate and realize it's all based on your ego. On some level of thinking it's important to figure this shit out. To figure out things that are perhaps not meant to be figured out for humans, right? At that point it's, 'Well, we still have some time left in life. We're about halfway through, for sure, but what is it really that you want? I want to be happy, have a good time, hang with my buddies, I want to laugh, and play some tunes. So there's 'Ghost'. So I think at this point, now, whatever I do in the future will have a lot less to do with metaphor, meaning-of-life shit. I think it's quite obviously an age thing, too, as I'm getting older. And just...well, you're never going to win that—
What I write in the future will be rooted in my life, you know, but I just don't think I need to worry so much about having to stick my hand in the fire to write about what burning feels like. Because I already know
Devin: You know what I mean? I got a buddy in a band and they do really complicated, intense music, and we were having a conversation about it as well. You can go so far into your own mind, and keep thrilling yourself because you think you're uncovering all these things. But you're just uncovering these little bits of an infinite puzzle. And it's so tiring that, if it's infinite, who are you trying to impress? We're just trying to impress ourselves so we don't have to face the fact that we're just like our dads, and would much rather just eat pot roast and sit in front of the TV.
MM: [Laughs] Right, well, I can't complain with that sort of future.
Devin: Yeah. Well, the sooner I get to the point where I can say [pointing in various directions], 'Well, this is what you like. And this is what you don't like, and you're not going to be able to figure that out, and you don't like that. So, fuck it.' Roll with that and you're good.
MM: Well, now that you've reached this...I won't call it complete kind of peace—
Devin: [Laughs] Yeah, I can tell you that...
MM: It certainly seems that so much of your output in the past was driven by this very strong creative tension. And now that there's some kind of equilibrium, what do you think will drive you? Not just to write music, but also lyrically and ideologically?
Devin: Well, because I think I am pretty left-brained—more than I gave myself credit for—I think I've managed to really dissect emotions. At least my own. And I've been able to understand what they do, how they do it, and when. So I think that writing music now, if the story (if I ever write stories) calls for this emotion, then it's very easy for me to say, 'Ok, how do you achieve that? How does the audience come to that so that when it hits, they'll know that it's fear, or beauty?' I understand it and I don't think I necessarily have to participate in some drama to present that.
For me I think that's really cool, because it's liberating. There's going to be a certain amount of people who are going to miss that history, saying, 'You had a very personal investment in that.' And I still will. But I have no desire or need.... You know, there are some artists that say, 'We're going to write a song about the Arctic, so let's go sit in the Arctic in my underwear for two weeks.' But I've done it. I've been through a ton of shit. And I definitely made mental notes: 'Well, that's how that feels. And that's why that happened. That plus that equals that.' And I think, as we talked about math, talked about emotions—it's all the same shit. Everything's the same, right? When it comes to writing music in the future, as with the music I've been writing, I can say, 'Well, this goes here, and here, and here.' Because I'm more on autopilot than ever before now, it's simple. I think the thing that hasn't changed is that...I do believe that I'm interested in life, and I do believe that I am passionate about certain things in ways that I never was before. Because there's no gauze in front of it—it just is what it is. So what I write in the future will be rooted in my life, you know, but I just don't think I need to worry so much about having to stick my hand in the fire to write about what burning feels like. Because I already know.
MM: So it's less of a bewildered catharsis and more of an exploration of senses...?
Devin: I think it's even less of an exploration. I think now, it's just write music, you know? All the catharsis and all the drama—that was a product of me at that dramatic, exploring stage of my life. Now, I've got no need. I know what's going to happen if I fuck another chick on tour. I know what's going to happen if I do acid. I know. The age of, 'Oh, I wonder what would happen if...'. Well, you know what's going to happen, dude. In a lot of ways that's very liberating, because how much time do you waste, to be honest, going through all that 'woe is me' shit when you know exactly? The last time I did mushrooms, years ago, I remember I was all high and thinking, 'Well, you knew that this was going to happen.' You know what I mean? 'What were you expecting?' So, I think with drugs or booze or sex...there's a certain limit to where you're at the end of the road with it. You're not going to go any further, or transcend your own mind by doing a bunch of blow. You're just going to be high. So I think all the information I needed to get from those experiences in my life, I've gotten. Now it's liberating to not have to wonder.
MM: So, then, when you say that you're on autopilot now more than ever before, it's autopilot in a good way where you're allowing yourself to be following intuition—
Devin: Shit, yeah. Totally. And instinct, and all these things. There were a lot of people who were never fortunate enough to get away from all of that; I've had a good support network and good friends. The end result of any experimentation that I do...I trust myself now. I know I'm not going to do a bunch of stupid shit. Well, I'm always going to do stupid shit, but the things I may have been tempted to do in the past—even though there's still temptation—I have no doubt that I'll make the right decision when the time comes. Making these four records was almost an exercise for me of learning to forgive and consequently trust my instincts. In the past, in trusting my instincts when I was drunk or high or whatever, I made a series of really stupid mistakes. At the time, I was like, 'Oh, no, that was some mechanism in you. It's got nothing to do with your activities, you're just a bad person.' And once you get rid of those things, you're like, 'Nah, you're not a bad person; you're just high and being an idiot,' right? The consequences of your past are always there. But now I think it's kind of funny when people are like, 'Oh, you're the crazy guy,' and I'm like [waves hand], 'Yeah, ok...you got it, man.'
Devin: I think that you take the past and just run with it. But now when I write, I can say, 'Oh, I guess we're going...there. Cool.' I know what to do when we go there. And lyrics are doing...this. Ok. If that's the part of the song going to these depths, or whatever, then I've got tons of things to draw on from that.
MM: Well, I think that's all I have time for, but thank you so much. I look forward to being able to sit down again next time; I didn't even begin to delve into all the musical technical items that I wanted....
Devin: Thanks, man, good interview. And it's all smoke and mirrors.