Devin Townsend is a changed man. He’s productive as ever, but he looks at things from a new perspective since he quit drinking and doing drugs. For me this became very clear when I saw him performing at the Vera in Groningen. He was actually having a good time on stage and the overall vibe was really positive. This is quite a profound change compared to this Strapping Young Lad stage antics when he cursed and insulted his audience like there was no tomorrow. This and his revealing thoughts on his transformation musically put in words through his Ki, Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost albums form the backbone of this very honest and often very personal interview..
The difference between the way you behave on stage in during your Strapping Young Lad period and the way you’re performing tonight’s show couldn’t be bigger. You actually seemed to enjoy yourself. What happened?
Yes, back then I really disliked being on stage and in a way I was really afraid of everybody. When you’re afraid of something you get really agressive toward it. All of a sudden I got to a point where I started to have kids and stopped doing a lot of my bad habbits. You either confront that or you spend your whole life being terrified.
The last time we did an interview we talked about how much you missed your family while being on the road and you kept on going essentially against your will..
I’m still missing them while I’m out there touring, but I came to the conclusion that with drugs and alcohol there was nothing to look forward to. I used to be like “let’s get the show over with, so we can smoke that bag of weed”, but without those influences the best part of the day is the show itself. It took me a couple of years to analyse why I did the things I was doing and the type of music I created and I came to the conclusion that I’m very fortunate that I’m able to do the things I want to do and that I’ve managed to establish some kind of a fanbase. After years of sort of necgleting that I came to realise it’s an honour to have such a thing. There are a lot of people who would love to be in the situation we’re in, so not making the most of that at this point wouldn’t only be a slap in their face but also a slap in the face to the people who supported us for the past twenty years.
I think many people appreciate your music, because it’s sincere and genuine. How important is it for you to be honest in the music you create?
It’s the only thing that is important, even though it’s bad for business. The way I write is I pick up a guitar, let it all out and make it as good as it can possibly be. But I remember when I was doing Ki, Ghost or even Deconstruction it came out exactly as I wanted, but I knew for a fact it would bother people. I was concerned that some parts of my audience would see it as an insult if I wouldn’t deliver the kind of music they wished me to create or that they would see it as a deliberate attempt to make them angry, because I’m doing something different. That’s absolutely not the case. To be completely straight up with you I write what I write and it’s coming out the way it’s coming out and I’m trying to capture that the best I can. Sometimes it comes better out than other times, but it’s always completely honest.
You’ve expressed yourself musically in many different ways and you’ve been doing this for at least twenty years. Don’t you think you’ve earned the right to create the music you feel like creating?
I certainly hope so or at least I’m hoping I’m getting to that point soon. When I go out there playing it’s so far from what I really want to do. I want it to be theatrical and to play big shows, but I want to have accoustic moments too, where it’s like one person and a guitar with no production and then to have a massive production with choirs and all. At this moment we’re back in a van again, making enough money to keep us on the road. As akward as those moments seem to be it’s a good opportunity to experiment with some things. On the last tour I was really afraid to change the setlist. I had this sequence of songs that really did something towards the end of the show and I love that. The problem is that I have so many records under my belt and if I keep repeating myself; people who want to hear a lot of that get bored, you know? So for tonight’s show I decided to change the setlist completely, so the flow was completely wrong, but it gives me the chance to see how certain songs work together. For instance the Deconstruction stuff is dark, but it’s theatrical dark, but not nihilistic like the stuff I did with Strapping Young Lad. What I hope to do is to go on stage and tell some kind of story and lead it to a dark place and have the music illustrate that. When that story comes to a happy part we’ll have happy music to back that up and mellow stuff for the mellower moments and so on. It’s like some kind of epiphany, right?
Talking about Deconstruction it reminds me a lot of your Strapping Young Lad material, however without all the negativy and nihilism. Your new material is still heavy, weird and outlandish, but it’s executed in a very focussed and controlled way….
Thank you, it does exactly represent my current state of mind. Sometimes when people are negative towards the record for the very things it’s about it becomes difficult for me to discuss it, right? The problem of this record is that it’s a stream of conciousness and all the lyrics wander and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. The whole four record project is suppossed to in a vague way to represent the transition of one way of thinking and creating to another and hopefully those four records represent the way that change came about.
So which of the four records represents your current state of being?
Ghost, 100 percent and it has been for many years. The point of Deconstruction is that the main character that the lyrics revolve around, at the end of the story has an epiphany that the thing he was focussing so heavily on adds nothing to his life and when he’s standing back and reviews it all it’s all so confusing and so much work that the quest he was on is in the end entirly futile. This realisation makes the character re-evaluate what’s really important to him. The character is obviously me, so for me what is really important the thirty something age I am right now is – I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs and I’m a vegitarian, so I’m a boring dude, right? What I did today I walked around, rented a bike and rode around the city and I loved it. It was awesome.
In what way does your current sobriety influence your music and your creativity?
That’s a good question. In the past what drugs and drinking did for me was made me focus on things that weren’t imaginary but more stuff under the surface so to speak. I don’t have any moral agenda, but from my experience people who normally wouldn’t be interested in conspiracy theories, alien agendas or religion start focussing on those sorts of things after using mariuana or other types of drugs. I don’t deny there are things under the surface, but what is really important for me is to get from point A to point B and these things under the surface has no real bearing on that. The more I focussed on those under the surface things the less I was able to cope with normal interactions. Relationships that were based on things I said I was going to do, being irresponsible in times when you need to be there, that kind of stuff. I find that with music it was very much the same. Back then I was smoking a lot of pot and doing a lot of acid I found that my music was all about those kind of philosophical and existential dramas, which exist absolutely, but I guess that’s the whole idea behind Deconstruction as well, those kind of dramas rarely if ever get resolved. In many ways it’s a rabbit hole of intellectual masturbation as far as I’m concerned. When you dig so deep in a topic like infinity, it’s infinite as far as you want to go, but by the very nature of it you won’t go very far. To summerize it it all my views on music is what is it that I feel and how can I represent that sound without spending a lot of time thinking about the songs and how this and that will work and simply do it. That’s probably new for me in terms of how I write music, right?
What makes you tick when it comes to writing music and being creative?
Creative freedom, productivity and I like collages. I like taking parts of my world, visiual or sonic and put them in one place and collectively they represent a certain place in time for me. With Ki I was spending a lot of time in the woods in Canada and I tried to include that kind of visiual aspect on that album.
Personally I very much like your Ki and Ghost albums, because they show a musical side of you which hasn’t seen the light of day up until now..
Yes, but I needed to flank those albums with Addicted and Deconstruction in a way to have a certain kind of closure for a period in my life that didn’t want to go away. It’s like people want me to do Terria again or Strapping Young Lad again, right? Well, that’s not what I’m going to do. What I needed to do was to make those two records flanked by Ki and Ghost, which represents a certain period of my life, but lyrically it’s about why those periods no longer a part of my emotional landscape, right? Not entirely, I did feel a connection when I wrote the music and the lyrics, but Addicted was a concious representation of that part in my carreer. With Deconstruction I wanted to address the Strapping Young Lad element, especially the Alien period, which got the best of me. I wanted to make a record that said several things. One I wanted to make something that’s more complicated and deeper, production-wise than Alien, without that getting the best of me, which I did. Number two, I wanted to make something which was along that line without the self destructive and nihilistic tendency to it.
That’s what I like about Deconstruction. It’s basically Strapping Young Lad with a positive spin to it..
100 percent! I think it was also good for me that make that kind of record to say to the people who expect me to do another S.Y.L record after all that I’ve gone through, if I was to make a heavy record with this frame of mind without a lot of sacrifice, this is what it would sound like. A lot of people say: “This is not what we want” and I say: “Absolutely, this is what I’ve been saying for the past five years. If I was to make a heavy metal record it wouldn’t be something you’d expect to like or hear.
In all honesty I think Alien was your ultimate musical statement as far as Strapping Young Lad goes, but the The New Black, the final S.Y.L record was basically a weird collection of leftover songs thrown together in order to forefill your contract with Century Media. What are your thoughts on that?
I agree with you there. There’s one song on that record I really like and that’s Almost Again, because it has a different kind of vibe. What The New Black was supposed to represent for me that after Alien I realised I’ve gone too far and as result of that I compromised certain elements of my psyche that was difficult for me to reconcile. The New Black is still very much a Strapping Young Lad record, but from a musical perspective I totally agree with you. At the same time it was important for me to do that record to to conclude S.Y.L without having the notion of having one more record to do. The vibe on The New Black was this kind of jokingly take on why I have decided to change. In my mind it’s still very much a S.Y.L record meant as a final middle finger and the fact that it’s thrown together that worked in an artistic way, but musically it’s a compromised record. I would argue though that allthough Alien is the most over-the-op record the ultimate S.Y.L statement for me is City. At the time City was exactly the same what I did with Ki and Ghost. At the time it was how I am and what I wanted to do and when I was doing Ki it was the same exact thing. When I did the selftitled S.Y.L album, Alien and The New Black I had to put myself in a state of mind that wasn’t natural in order to recreate something that was natural.
I’m still kind of baffled by the change from your larger-than-life S.Y.L on stage persona and black humour to your current down to earth attitude and your postive outlook on things.
Remember you saying that honesty was the thing you like about my records? When I started to realise that S.Y.L was more becoming an act that I was getting better and better at doing it became very difficult for me to have normal interactions with people because there was an expectation of how I would behave, but as of now when I perform it’s an blown-up version of who I am, but there’s no big difference between the person that’s talking to you now and the guy that’s playing the music on stage. Nothing that I would say on stage I wouldn’t say in normal life, you know? That’s the main difference. With Strapping the way I was raised sarcasm was a very important part of the family dynamic and after I got older I started to realise that if you’re trained from a young age not to be angry, sarcasm and humor are good outlets to vent your anger. For me it was important to acknowledge that was very gratifying to be that vicious to the audience. Doing drugs, eating spicy food or sexual misconduct it’s the same impulse of instant satisfaction. That was the image people got from me in my Strapping days and the interaction with people after the show was based on that image. Nowadays it’s more like what you see is what you get, like the normal informal dude I am right now.
As a final question, what’s next on your list now you’ve finished your tour-de-force four record project?
I’m writing a bunch of very different material right know and I’m experimenting with three of four different projects and I’m trying to gaze which project make the people around the happiest. There’s a ton of touring and I’m working on a Ziltoid TV show, which I’m really excited about. He’s going to interview people and he has absolutely no problems with saying things I do have problems with. Besides that I’ve been reading a lot and going to the beach, having picknicks and I’m building furniture. I like quiet things and I’m learning to allow myself to have those moments without the need of being productive.
Ray and Alternative Matter would like to extend a special thanks to Paul Collins and Kim Schepers for their kindness and hospitality.