Interview with Devin Townsend
17 NOVEMBER 2011
Canadian Devin Townsend’s band Strapping Young Lad were too thrashy for my tastes. But I knew and loved the single ‘Christeen’ lifted off his ’98 ‘Infinity’ LP. Ginger had also been credited as co-writing ‘Christeen’ and featured in the promo video.
However, I wrongly assumed that all Devin’s other work would be of the same ilk as Strapping Young Lad, so I never explored. Then all that changed…
In October 2011, my friend Kerry posted a link on Facebook to the Devin song ‘Planet Of The Apes’. Well, it blew me away! I subsequently started to acquire Devin’s impressive back catalogue and discovered diversity running through every album. He went from creating a wall of sound, into thrash, ambience, and everything in between.
Only a few weeks after being blown away, I saw a conversation on Facebook that Kerry was having with a friend. That conversation mentioned a metal festival called Damnation on 5th November being held at Leeds University Union, which featured Devin Townsend. My mind started ticking over at a rate of knots. Devin had briefly been a guitarist with The Wildhearts in ’94. Better interview him then.
I immediately bought a ticket to Damnation and began the process of setting up an interview. I sent Devin a message on MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, but had no joy. Then I managed to contact his management via e-mail. I was told there may be a chance, I just had to text his tour manager on the morning of the festival and see if Devin was free at any point.
Once there I sent a few texts during the day, but it seemed that Devin was way to busy to squeeze me in. However, his manager said he’d spoken to Devin who’d be happy to do it before one of his acoustic dates coming up. That’d do me nicely.
Devin was also doing a signing session at Damnation at 6.00pm. I didn’t bother queuing as I knew I would get to speak to him during our interview later that month, so I just stood at the side to watch his adoring followers meet their man. As soon as Devin could be spotted through the crowd, it was chaos. He greeted this adulation with a beaming smile and thumbs aloft. I managed to position myself behind the rope just to the right of where he was sitting and took the opportunity to shake his hand and mention our upcoming interview. “It’s about the Wildhearts book, yeah? No problem!” came his reply. With that brief but positive response ringing in my ears, Devin’s headlining set later that evening was as joyous and welcoming as meeting him only a few hours previously.
The interview was organised to take place before his Leicester University O2 Academy acoustic gig on 17 November.
My train journey to the Midlands was soundtracked by several Devin albums which, alongside visuals of the sprawling English countryside, took on extra dimensions. Devin really is a gifted musical visionary. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, I received this text from my Mum:
Your Stars say you’ve been through a lot recently, but you get to put the stress behind you. Better times are calling but require you to first accept an invite which you would normally shy away from. Come on, life is calling. xx
This text was apt as, from December 2009 to June 2011, I had suffered a severe, prolonged bout of depression. But I finally beat the bastard and was now on my way to interview Devin Townsend!
Arriving in Leicester, I did my usual trick of getting lost, and walked around in ever-increasing circles looking for the hotel I had booked. Luckily I did though as, whilst on my unplanned personal Tour de La Leicester, I passed De Montfort University, the venue where, fifteen years previously, I’d seen The Wildhearts. Memories, oh sweet memories.
Eventually, after finding my hotel, I showered and got prepared to interview the main man. I met tour manager Paul Collis by his car outside the venue where he was grabbing a CD out of the car stereo that Devin always listened to before he performed. How Intriguing.
I was shown into the venue and led into a large nondescript room which contained only the bare necessities. Devin was sitting down with his head in his laptop. After finishing whatever it was he was doing in cyber world, he greeted me with a warm handshake and a simple “Hi” in his broad Canadian accent. After I’d explained what Zealot was about, we cracked on…
Me: “At what age did you embrace music?”
Devin: “I don’t even remember any more. We came from a pretty musical family, so it was always kinda there. I think we were emotionally pretty stunted in my family too, so I found that music was a sort of acceptable way to get things out. Probably seven or eight, I guess, like all those seventies musicals. All those Andrew Lloyd Webber things were a big deal to me. There was a lot of music in my family.”
Me: “When did you first think about doing music for a living? When did you first pick up an instrument?”
Devin: “Well, I had a scholarship to go to university for music, and I just tried my hand at being in a band instead. And then I sent out a bunch of demos and, before you knew it, I was in LA working with Steve Vai. I was probably nineteen or eighteen at that time. I worked with him for a couple of years and through that I met Big Mick, who’s the soundman for Metallica. He was managing The Wildhearts at the time, then he came on tour and did sound for Vai. Then The Wildhearts opened up for Vai, and at that time my relationship with the Vai band was not dysfunctional, but not particularly comfortable. And so I found that I spent more time with The Wildhearts. Then when CJ left the band they asked me to come and play with them, and I was with The Wildhearts for about a year, I guess. Then Strapping Young Lad, then onwards and upwards, right?”
Me: “Do you remember the first band or artist you saw, and what effect it had on you?”
Devin: “Probably Johnny Cash I guess, and that was a big thing in my family too; my grandfather really liked it. Folk music basically, I like folk music. I’m from Canada, so there’s a lot of, like, native North American sorta folkie stuff, new-agey stuff.”
Me: “Am I right in saying – I think it’s on one of your albums I haven’t got – that there’s a little bit of folk on there?”
Devin: “Yeah, there’s folk on everything I do somewhere. Basically, what I do, it goes from one extreme to another and back again. Sometimes it’s folkie, sometimes it’s toxic.”
Me: “What are your views on the dynamic between an artist and their fans? The artists’ privacy? For instance, Ginger reveals a lot about his life through Formspring. Do you prefer a bit of mystery?”
Devin: “No, I think that a lack of mystery is probably better if you reveal a lot about yourself through your music. Because if there is mystery, people have the tendency to assume that there’s more to you then there actually is, right? So, if you can, like, break that down a bit and show that you get upset or you’re an idiot, essentially like everybody else, then I think in some way it diffuses some of that deification that comes with music. I really think that’s more of a product of the eighties, where it was the us and them sorta attitude. I wanna be honest with my music, and I want people to know there’s nothing special about musicians, or me, or you, or anybody – we’re all just doing our thing, right? The more open you can be, I think you run less chance of people making assumptions on you… if you’re a little more forthcoming with how much of an idiot you really are.”
Me: “I never thought of it that way. You’re quite right. Has there ever been a case where a fan has pissed you off, or vice versa?”
Devin: “Oh fuck yeah, totally. Of course, I mean people piss people off all the time in life in general. I’m pretty patient, I think, but if somebody pushes it too far I’ll let ’em know. It’s one percent of your audience, from what I can tell, that are pricks, right? For the most part it’s normal people who wanna express themselves or relate in some way how what you have been privy to as a musical mine has resonated with them. And that’s a great compliment, ’cause I’ve never really been too keen on the idea of musicians being directly responsible for the music. I like the thought of it just being there. You’re not channelling it, but you’re privy to it due to your life circumstances, and if people resonate with it that’s great, ’cause that’s ultimately the goal, to relate to people. But there’s other people like, in any walk of life, they’re just rude. I’ve got patience to a certain extent, but it’s like anything, if someone’s rude to you, you’re like, ‘Dude, you’re pushing this too far.’”
Me: “Of course, and I think fans have got to realise that you may have seen so many people, or you’re not in a good mood that day.”
Devin: “That being said, though, there’s definitely a part of the job that involves you holding some of that shit back. Because it’s, like, these four shows we did over the last week, there’s people that came from Japan, and India, and Israel. We were shot the whole time; we’ve been exhausted for, like, months. But all it takes is for someone to present themselves to you and you to be flippant about it, although that might not be what your intention is, that’s their impression. So I think that part of doing this for a living is, much as it’s nice to think that we’re all just the same, choosing to do this you’re in a role. There’s a certain amount of responsibility, and part of that is holding that shit back until you’ve got a moment to let it go.”
Me: “Have you ever fallen out with an artist when you were younger and a fan of a band?”
Devin: “Yeah, yeah – people who were just, like, too casual about it, or rude about it, or whatever. But I’ll admit I’ve never been obsessive about anybody. I mean, I really liked Jane’s Addiction when I was, like, seventeen years old. And I remember going to see if the record company would let me meet them, and they were like, ‘No.’ But I didn’t pursue it any further than that. I think that there’s sometimes a sense of entitlement that comes from the audience’s point of view, where they’re just, like, because I’ve got an emotional investment in this music, it’s important for me to express that to the audience, right? I do understand that, but it has to be said it is for them; it is for the fans – I hate using the word fans – it’s for the audience’s benefit if they feel they need to express these things. Because a lot of times they’re projecting, right? They’re saying, ‘This has affected me in this way. In order to validate that sort of emotional response, it’s essential for me to express it to you.’ A lot of times the audience considers that to be honouring the artist, but other times it’s sort of like a selfish thing, where they’re just saying, ‘I need you to listen to me.’ And I think, as an artist, you need to listen to that a lot of the time. But, if it’s done in a way that’s evasive, then there’s no reason why you should have to put up with it.”
Me: “We are all only human at the end of the day.”
Devin: “Not only that, it’s going back to the Formspring thing. It’s, like, you try to be very clear with the facts. You say, like, ‘I’ve got tons of problems. I’m just a dude, right? I’m trying to figure this shit out. And I do my figuring out through music. So, yes, there’s a responsibility that comes with not being a total asshole to people who have an emotional investment in you. But, on the other side of it perhaps, the reason why people have an emotional investment in it is because there’s a similarity. If there is a similarity, you gotta know that there’s moments where you and anybody else wouldn’t wanna be bothered, right? I remember going to a psychiatrist at one point, and he said that there’s a frame of mind from an audience perspective that’s called the synchronicity freak where people are convinced that you’re the same. That you’re conspiring and that sort of shit, right? But it’s, like, basically, man, evolutionarily we’re at a stage where people misconstrue the reality of life for being some sort of conspiracy. I think maybe a couple of hundred years from now we’ll be, like, ‘Of course everything’s the same. Jesus Christ – you thought it wasn’t?’ You know what I mean?”
Me: “What are your feelings on fans maybe getting onstage while you’re performing?”
Devin: “It’s ok. It doesn’t bother me. As long as they’re not out there to shoot ya, you’re all good, ya know?”
Me: “You don’t mind?”
Devin: “No, I don’t mind.”
Me: “Next time I’ll be on there.”
Devin: “Well, we invite them up.”
Me: “What about when you’re playing acoustic?”
Devin: “Yeah, we invite ’em up man. I mean on some level you’ve gotta have faith in the ninety-nine percent. Again, there is a separation that has occurred in my mind between – a paradigm shift between, sort of like, Bono in the sky and Axl Rose in the sky kind of thing versus a bunch of people who make music to feed their family and a bunch of people who listen. And I think it’s rude for the people who make the music to not acknowledge the people who listen, and I think it’s rude for the people who listen to impose themselves on the people who make it. Somewhere in the middle there it works great”
Me: “I’m sure you’ve got a million different answers to this question. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen or done at a gig, whilst being in the crowd or performing?”
Devin: “What’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever done at a gig? Oh gosh. I mean, it’s been twenty years of doing this, man. I don’t party – it’s not in my nature. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t party, I don’t go out. I hate being in clubs. I don’t like loud things. Because the nature of what we do is loud, after shows I go back to the hotel and watch TV. Loads of times I’ll hear about crazy things, like, ‘After you left Buddy lit his ass on fire and melted a wax sculpture onto the top of the Statue of Liberty. You should have been there,’, or whatever. And I’m just like, ‘Yeah sounds like a crack. You guys get any sleep, no?’ I’m just not too interested in the shenanigans, to be honest.”
Me: “What do you think is more important, the music or entertaining the audience onstage?”
Devin: “The music. But when you’re playing live, to not entertain people doesn’t make much sense. What I do is complicated, I think, in terms of sonically. So it could really be construed as being incredibly pretentious if you don’t just be a little more light-hearted with it. If I have to tour, which I do, and I enjoy it, if you have to do it and be away from your family, you sure should try and make it positive and enjoyable. And I think a lot of times it’s a choice, right? A lot of times I think to myself, ‘Man, I’m miserable today. Jesus Christ, man, I don’t wanna do anything, I just wanna sulk.’ But I think it’s within your power to make that choice as to whether or not you want to impose it on people, right?
Me: “Yeah, I was like that this morning; I woke up in the filthiest mood. I thought, ‘Gary, get your arse out of bed.’ It’s been a good day. If I hadn’t moved my arse out of bed, I dunno. It wouldn’t have been too clever.”
Devin: “It’s the same thing with performance and entertaining. It’s, like, you may be in a shit mood, but the people that come there, they’re coming there and spending money to have a good time, right? There’s a certain number of them that will understand if you’re just like, ‘I’m in a shit mood.’ But a lot of them are just like, ‘Well fucking snap out of it, dude. Who isn’t? You get to play music for a living. Buck up.’ I think that entertainment is very important if you’re doing it live, but, beyond any entertainment, it’s music, right?”
Me: “As a method of self-expression, do you think there’s a better art form than music?”
Devin: “It depends what you’re predisposed to, I guess. I mean, if you’re a dancer, dancing makes more sense. I don’t know if it’s necessarily that important. Our need to express our self is pretty selfish too, right? I think we do it just because we’re looking for validation, so we can understand further what our own process is. And it’s nice that, as a result of that, we can create an atmosphere that breeds good will or, ya know, bad will – whatever your intentions are, right? But, ultimately, I think people can express themselves perfectly well just sitting, as opposed to going anywhere else, if that’s what their thing is.”
Me: “I can’t remember which musician said it, but they said, ‘Music doesn’t save lives.’ I’d have to disagree with that.”
Devin: “I’d agree with you; I think it can save lives. But, at the same time, I think that if you’re making music with the intention of saving lives, then you’ve got some serious issues. I think the way it does make a difference for other people is if the people who are making it are doing it without second-guessing what their intentions are. They’re just doing it as a strict expression of the soul. I mean, music doesn’t maybe save lives, but what it does do, in my opinion, is it allows people to make decisions based on other people’s points of view – which maybe in turn can do that.”
Me: “Yeah, I watched a Ginger interview where he mentioned that a fan of his had told him that one of his mates was gonna jump off a bridge. The fan managed to make his mate – who’d never heard of Ginger – listen to the Ginger song ‘This Is Only A Problem’. His friend said, “Who is this?” Listening to that song prevented him from jumping. I know it’s few and far between, but… in the interview Ginger was choked, saying it was the ultimate accolade.”
Devin: “But I think a lot of that has to do with that situation as well. Ginger’s music could be a catalyst, but I think a lot of it is the effort that his friend went to in showing him the song. Going back to everything being connected, I think there’s an undeniable power in music, and I think that, in terms of an expression, there are probably few things that can affect people in such a profound and invisible way. For me, I don’t think about music that often ’cause it’s what I do. And I guess the only thing I hope is that, ultimately, everybody has a good day. And I hope everybody’s ok. Maybe that hope from anybody writing music with the intention of wanting people to be happy, hopefully that’ll come through. And, in the best case scenario, see what happened to that guy’s friend.”
Me: “Can you tell me about your brief time in The Wildhearts? I saw a YouTube interview where you said that it was a walk in the park. I think it was a bit tongue-in-cheek.”
Devin: “It’s cool. I had a great time with The Wildhearts, it’s just they liked action and activity and loud. And I don’t like any of those things really. And so I think we just ended up annoying each other – and, if not annoying each other, confusing each other. ’Cause Ginger and I had, like… we’ve got a lot of things in common, but I think at the same time he was often – and we’ve obviously grown twenty years since then – but I think at the time he was confused as to why I didn’t want to go out or change certain elements of my personality and things like this. And I think for me, it’s like I’m a pretty stubborn person – and so I was like, ‘I’m not going to.’ And I found I just got tired as a result of the two disparate sort of ideologies trying to play ball with each other. And we’ve written certain things together, and we’ve had a really good time together, but I think the bottom line is I love him and I think that he’s a brilliant mind, but the level of activity that his person runs at makes me very tired. And I think the level of activity which I run with probably eventually just makes him very bored. So I think that, in terms of being in a band with each other, the people I end up being in a band with go to bed early and nobody really parties. Ya know, I don’t wanna go on a roller coaster; I don’t wanna jump out of an aeroplane. I wanna sit in my underwear and watch Antiques Roadshow, and I’m fine.
So that’s basically what it came down to. I think people have a lot of respect for each other and a lot of love for each other, but living together, after a while, is just difficult – different lifestyles and different goals, right? But, ultimately, we’re both trying to do a similar thing with music, and I think it comes across through a similar passion. But, when you’re on tour, you’ve gotta live with each other. I remember he’d be like, ‘Let’s go out tonight!’ and I’d be like, ‘Nah.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I’d be like, ‘’cause I don’t wanna.’ Then after a while it became more based on that than how we performed together. But, when I left, there was no animosity. I wasn’t like, ‘Fuck you, I’m out.’ I was like, ‘I just wanna do my own thing.’”
Me: “So was it ever gonna be a permanent thing?”
Devin: “I don’t think so. I mean, it was fun for me, for someone that doesn’t like adventure that much to see them in action at that stage in their career. I’d just stand back and go, ‘Wow that’s pretty intense.’ I was out with them for a year, then I came home and I was exhausted because there was a lot of… a lot of, drama, right?”
Me: “Yeah, you can only go at a certain pace for so long.”
Devin: “Well, you go at your pace. And I think that’s the thing, it’s even for self-preservation. Ginger, I think, would be the first to admit that he runs in the red a lot of the time – and enjoys that.”
Me: “I think he still does now. Not with the drugs and all that, not the rock ‘n’ roll way, but he’s prolific. On Formspring he answers tons of questions every day.”
Devin: “It’s awesome.”
Me: “He doesn’t give himself time. He said the only thing he fears is boredom.”
Devin: “Yeah. That’s the only thing I crave. I want to be still, and I want to have a quiet life. And that’s probably why we had some fun together too, because the clash made for some interesting conversations. But he’s also got a lot more stamina than me. So for, like, the first week, ya know, I’d be into, like, the verbal conversations and the all-night talks and everything, then after about a week I’d be like, ‘Ok dude, I’m out.’ And he’d be like, ‘Nah, I’m just getting warmed up man.’ And I think you’ve got to go at your own pace. I think that as you get older you just have to surround yourself with people who go at a similar pace, unless you like that constant challenge. But I think that the challenges for me are more based on, like, having a kid and the nuts and bolts of just being an adult, rather than needing any provocation to be less like my nature.”
Before we started, Devin’s manager had told me the interview couldn’t run over thirty minutes as he had another soon after. So when I glanced down at the Dictaphone and saw we only had ten minutes left, I started to quickly scan my questions to make sure I got the juicy ones in before my time was up.
Me: “Right, just picking these questions carefully as we’ve only got about ten minutes. Did you do some vocals on the B-side ‘Kill Me To Death’ off the ‘Urge’ single?”
Devin: “Yes, I did.”
Me: “How did that come about? What was that like? I know it was crazy in The Wildhearts camp around that time.”
Devin: “Well yeah, I remember going to the studio and I hadn’t seen ’em in a while. It was great to see ’em, and the first thing they wanted me to do was crack cocaine. And I’d never done it before so I was like, ‘No.’ And they were like, ‘But why?!’ And I was like, ‘’Cause I don’t wanna do crack cocaine.’ I remember, in the first ten minutes we were fighting about why I didn’t wanna do crack cocaine. So I sang it, and I think, in hindsight, listening to the lyrics, I think Ginger’s writing about our relationship. I thought that was very interesting.”
Me: “What’s that: ‘Kill Me To Death’?”
Devin: “I don’t know, I have no idea. That’s at least how I perceived it, so it was pretty funny.”
Me: “You credited Ginger on ‘Christeen’, but he said he didn’t write any of it.”
Devin: “Yeah, but he was there. I was writing music and I was, like, experimenting with marijuana and things like this. And he was a big part of my life, so…”
Devin: “Yeah, that’s what it was. But I mean, it’s another one of those things where it’s, like, we were kids, it’s like fifteen years, ok? Ginger’s got eight years, ten years on me. He’s older than me, right? So there’s an element of that, which played into the relationship as well. But any of the stuff that he and I went through, any of the moments we had together, was kids’ stuff for the most part.”
Me: “I was watching fans at your signing session at The Damnation Fest. One girl walked away shaking and another said she’d never met a musician who’d been so warm and approachable. What are your feelings on those reactions?”
Devin: “Yeah, but again, I’m definitely not doing it with an awareness of trying to be approachable and friendly. I think it’s really cool that people like it and know there’s no difference to you, me, or anybody else. I guess my thing is, I’m not on a mission; I’m not like trying to do anything. I’m not like trying to write music, I’m not trying to be approachable. I’m just trying to be me. I think the reason why Ginger and I never ended up working together is because that’s what we both do, because we’re both trying to be who we are. And no-one’s going to tell me not to be who I am, and no ones going to tell him who he is.”
Me: “I just think the reason why people ask, and the reason why I wonder, is because musically you both have songs that go off on so many tangents, it just seems like the natural thing for you two to get together.”
Devin: “Yeah, yeah. But if you get two people and their whole reason for being is to be honest with themselves, but one person’s honesty is to just be calm and the other person’s is to just seek out, ya know, new territories, eventually… the relationships that I’ve had musically that worked the best for me are the ones where there’s no discussion about it. We laugh at the same things, we have a good time, we get together and just make music. There’s less of the needing to understand other people’s motivations, right? As we get older it’s less of an interest to me why people do the things they do – it either works or it doesn’t, right?”
Me: “Kerry, who got me into you in the first place, wants to send you his love…”
Devin: “Oh cool, send it back, man.”
Me: “I will do. He wants to ask: ‘Did you learn anything from The Wildhearts experience?’”
Devin: “Yeah of course, I learned tons from The Wildhearts experience: that there’s other ways of doing things other than my own, regardless whether or not I like them, right? I learned a lot of things from then that I incorporated into my life as great ideas, and I learnt by watching them do a bunch of things I didn’t wanna involve myself in. Just by seeing how it reacted, right? But really, more than anything else, it’s not a drama. They’re good people, they’re honest people, they make amazing music and I have a ton of respect for them – and that’s it. That’s basically what it is; I’m a pretty self-absorbed Canadian guy that likes to work on his own and likes things quiet, right? And having the experience with a bunch of incredibly intelligent people from Newcastle made me realise that I should go back to Vancouver and continue on that path.”
Me: “So what does the future hold for Devin Townsend?”
Devin: “I’m gonna blow my nose in a couple of minutes and answer a couple of e-mails and see where it goes.”
Me: “I like that Zen attitude. Ok, well, thank you very much.”
Devin: “Thank you. Good luck with the book.”
What a lovely chap. As Devin’s performance wasn’t due to start for a few hours, I nipped to the nearest pub and demolished a couple of pints of Hoegaarden and reflected on the interview.
The gig itself was one of the strangest experiences of my life; but that’s another story…