By Carl Begai
“In his music he has the perfect symbiotic relationship between heavy and melody and true emotions and feelings. It’s just so pure and so heavy. When I was singing for the Epicloud album I told him I could hear West Side Story in the music. It’s so fairytale-like but so damn heavy.”
The above comment from vocalist ANNEKE VAN GIERSBERGEN with regards to the DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT’s new album, Epicloud – offered during a May 2012 interview with yours truly - could have turned out to be a glaring case of too-close-to-the-music enthusiasm. Understandable given the high of her first successful foray into Hevy Devy’s world with the Addicted record in 2009, but from a discerning open-minded Townsend fan’s perspective her words sum up the album perfectly. It plays with his trademark heavy on a canvas of melody, seemingly executed with a musical stage play in mind, and Townsend clearly unafraid of mixing his not entirely hidden pop tendencies with the crushing metal he’s known for. In fact, he doesn’t give a good goddamn what people think in the grand scheme of things if they choose to dismiss Epicloud as worthless. Townsend made the record for himself and anyone else who gets off on being entertained.
“I think for me, because I spent so many years writing records that threw curveballs at people out of a fear of success or failure, I never really allowed myself to make a record that was just straight up,” says Townsend. “I let myself go on autopilot for this one and I was actually surprised by what came out naturally. When I finished it I sat back and listened to it the same way I did with Alien (STRAPPING YOUNG LAD), and I was thinking ‘What the hell did you make here?’ (laughs). I just allowed myself to write a bunch of stuff that seemed to be appropriate, and when all was said and done my first reaction was that Epicloud was too vulnerable, too exposed. They were going to kick me out of the Chess Club for not being progressive. I thought I was going to get lambasted for doing something like this.”
Which hasn’t been the case at all. Sure, the haters and fence-sitters are flitting about in the wings, but Epicloud has been embraced by a large portion of Townsend’s post-SYL fanbase in a big way.
“It’s been pretty good,” he agrees. “Overall, with the press it’s been ‘Oh, it’s another Dev record and it’s acceptable.’ Some people like it, some people don’t, and then there are other people that are invested in disliking it of course, but with the actual audience the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive in a way that I haven’t experienced to date. I think that regardless of the music and how it compares to the past, the thing about Epicloud that appealed to me was that I tried to make something that was positive. I really tried to go out of my way and not make something like a 15 minute prog epic. I wanted to make a rock record and I wanted to write romantic lyrics and make it simple. I didn’t want it to be over people’s heads thematically. I wanted to get back to SLADE and DEF LEPPARD. Maybe that’s because of the topsy-turvy world we live in, or because music in general these days seems pretty dire.”
“I’m really proud of it and I’m really happy to get it out of my system because it clears that whole thing out that I’ve been flirting with for so many years but maybe unwilling to commit to because it wasn’t cool or too commercial or something. When I actually committed to doing Epicloud it was ‘Fuck it; take all the pop stuff and the Def Leppard stuff and the over-the-top epic production stuff and do it all.’ That way I’m able to move on to the Z2 thing and Casualties Of Cool without a hidden agenda that may leech its way into things when it’s not appropriate.”
Townsend went on record with BW&BK way back in 1997 and the Ocean Machine album that he was and always had been a huge fan of “the big dumb rock record” approach. Epicloud is his way of (finally) confronting the desire to go for broke and make a serious attempt at creating one of his own.
“That’s the whole point of it. What’s kind of defined what I’ve done overall in my career is that it’s polarizing in general. There are people that like one thing and may dislike another, and that’s to be expected given the nature of how disparate it is. For me creating the shit, I find that a lot of why I do music in the first place is to find ways though my process and try to conquer artistic hang-ups. That ultimately allows me to deal with my hang-ups in real life in more effective ways. One of them is maybe admitting that my desire to play big dumb rock is a lot closer to the surface than I allowed myself to think it was. When I was making the album I was thinking ‘You should study pop song structures and use them. And you should get a choir because you want to make it epic to fulfill that quasi-agnostic spiritual thing that you’ve always been flirting with. And shit, you like female vocals better than male vocals; who have you worked with that there’s no drama?’ That’s why I asked Anneke to come back for this one. I’m proud of Epicloud in hindsight more than I am of many of the records I’ve done, to be honest.”
For all the new territory explored on Epicloud it’s still loaded with Townsend trademarks; the massive grooves, the quirky sense of humour, and miles of vocal and instrumental layering are all part of the package. The song ‘Grace’ is a prime example, the cornerstone of the album with regards to showcasing Townsend’s epic production values.
“This may be hard to believe, but a lot of times I’ll hold back on the layering and the epic shit because I’m self-conscious of people saying ‘That’s the thing you always do, that wall of sound bullshit,’” he admits. “This time I was thinking ‘Nope, that’s what this album is about.’ I guess the irony of it all, and perhaps the reason I put everything into this one with production techniques and the over-the-topness, is because I’m reaching a point where it’s not interesting to me anymore. I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t think I’ve ever put it all in one place. It is my thing but I don’t think I’ve ever made a statement with it saying ‘Here’s what I’m about, here’s me.’ Whatever I’ve kind of defined myself as, it’s all wrapped up and coated in sugar on Epicloud.”
“What I’ve made on the side is this Casualties Of Cool record (featuring vocalist Ché Aimee Dorval) which sounds like JOHNNY CASH… in outer space, of course (laughs). I think it’s much more in line with who I am as a person at this age than Epicloud, but I needed to make Epicloud because I needed to put all the pieces together before I do the symphonic thing with Ziltoid, and the country thing with Casualties, and the multi-media puppet show. I think I owed it to myself to be able to say it’s all in one place now.”
Looking at Townsend’s catalogue of material it shouldn’t come as a surprise he coughed up an album like Epicloud, yet some fans can’t wrap their brains around the truth of his ‘This is where I’m at in my life’ way of making music.
“I agree, but I also find – strangely enough – that after 20 years people are also shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘Okay, that’s cool.’ That sort of honesty Tourettes that I’ve done for so long, and me being so awkwardly vocal about it in interviews, definitely turns people off. It would turn me off. At the end of it, though, it’s led me to a place where I can make a record that’s honest like Epicloud.”
Townsend had help along the way, and not just for the recording phase of the album. In what he calls a career first, he opened himself up to the people around him early on in the creative process.
“With the band, specifically for this record, I gave them 30 songs and had them tell me which ones they liked, which ones they didn’t like, and I told them not to butter it up,” Townsend reveals. “We’ve been friends for a long time so I had no problem doing that, but I told them ‘If you don’t like a song, give me the reason you don’t like it so that maybe we can find a compromise once I’ve explained it.’ Dave (Young/guitars), Ryan (Poederooyen/drums) and Bryan (Waddel/bass) all sent me lists of what they liked and didn’t like, and their lists were all different. We came back to it at the end and said ‘Okay, we all like these songs’ and decided to work with them, and if there was a song I wanted to include because it segued lyrically but they didn’t like it, we’d mess around with it and see if we could get it to a point where everyone was happy with it.”
“As much as it’s my name on it, it has to be democratic and believe that as we grow and as I grow, compromise is the cornerstone of any relationship. This is the first record that I’ve asked advice from the label and management. Not only did the band get all the songs, and so did they. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always been ‘Here’s the new record….’ (laughs). And if anyone said ‘I don’t like the mix I’d be like, ‘Well, I don’t like your shirt. Fuck you.’ Now, everybody was completely involved in the decision making, and we had heated debates. For me it was important to do that this time because the whole theme of compromise and outwardly letting yourself be involved with other people is what the record is about.”