DEVIN TOWNSEND – “Let Me Tell You Why”
November 15, 2020, 8 months ago
With the global pandemic's continued stranglehold on everyday life, the goal here - unlike the tabloids that masquerade as metal websites - is to push conversation far away from everything virus-related in the interest of (blackened) soul-healing music. There are some instances, however, where it's necessary to address COVID-19 and its effect on an artist's career. Or in Devin Townsend's case his current activities. Forced to scrap his Empath tour plans for 2020, Canada's own Strapping Young Lad has released Order Of Magnitude - Empath Live Volume 1 to commemorate his December 2019 show in London, England, but this is only a dusting of what he's been up to. Since March, Townsend launched a semi-ongoing podcast, streamed a series of off-the-cuff songs Quarantine Project songs to keep folks entertained, launched an effort to raise money for his out-of-work crew through merchandise sales, has performed a series of Quarantine Concerts to raise money for hospitals in Canada, the US and the UK, and put together a "virtual band" livestream show to make up for this year's appearance at the Bloodstock Open Air getting blown out. No, boredom is certainly not an issue for Townsend in these trying times.
Devin: "I think I'm okay. It's obviously very stressful in a lot of ways. Whether or not one subscribes to it, it's the underlying anxiety that comes from this toxic and divisive period in time. It's impossible to ignore. I think that undercurrent has made the fact that I'm finally at home and I'm finally in my studio a bittersweet thing because there's not a lot of inspiration. It's like, what are you going to write about? Are you going to compound the existing anxiety by writing about how you're anxious? That doesn't make any sense. It's forced me to be outside my comfort zone, and that has propelled me down a lot of different avenues that I never anticipated being a part of. It's been very fruitful, to be honest, and I should feel much worse than I do. All signs point to constant darkness and anxiety, but I'm trying to be as pro-active with that as possible so I don't let that happen."
BraveWords: Your podcasts are a good example of you being outside your comfort zone; you don't sound all that comfortable digging into the inner workings of how your albums came to be. It's definitely not the stage environment.
Devin: "Yeah, but you know what? I don't think I'm that comfortable on stage for the most part, either. I think maybe that I'm just uncomfortable in general, and I'm okay with that. And maybe that's the biggest change: recognizing what my true nature is as opposed to thinking that because I tend to be awkward, that's an indicator of some sort of dysfunction."
BraveWords: The Empath Live Volume 2 - By Request livestream show you did in September with the green screen band performance was a first, and it definitely set an example of what is possible if you put your mind to doing something. Artists like yourself are hungry to play live, just as the fans are hungry for live music, but what made you decide to go to the lengths you did for a lockdown show?
Devin: "That show sounded great and it looked like a low-budget '80s sci-fi film. I think awkward times require innovative and occasionally strange ways to bring society together at this point, because we all have to contend with it. I just try to work under the assumption that for the people who enjoy what I do, it helps them if I continue doing what I do. It's sort of a cyclical thing. I take inspiration from people who are doing things that help me, and I also take inspiration from people who aren't throwing in the towel. What I bring to the table is my contribution, and that's where I'm at right now."
BraveWords: Where are you at creatively right now? It's not like there's pressure or deadlines to get things done with this virus messing up the works.
Devin: "There actually is. I've got management, the label, and the booking agents - even again this morning - asking me to confirm tours that we know aren't going to happen. I think there's a certain amount of that; it's just that these venues going out of business and there are a lot of bands that rely on touring, so they hedge their bets by booking shows, then cancelling, then booking again. I set deadlines for myself because I function well with deadlines, and in terms of inspiration... it's not a particularly inspiring time, so how I find I'm able to proceed during this period is to motivate myself. How I function best for self-motivation is through discipline. I've got a schedule that I keep for myself; exercise, meditation, dietary things. I just show up every day and write, work, answer emails, do interviews, and eventually there's a lot of stuff that gets done."
BraveWords: Like the songs you put together for your Quarantine Project at the beginning of the pandemic? A few of those were album worthy ("Honeybunch", "Call Of The Void", "Heavy Factions", "A Newer Reign"), then there was the "Witch Doctor" cover (David Seville), and your version of "We Like To Party" by the Vengaboys...
Devin: "I love that Vengaboys song, man (laughs). No matter what anybody says, I love that song. What's funny is that one of the steps that I've taken during this period - and it's a byproduct of releasing that stuff - is I've stopped reading comments online. I don't read the feeds on Twitter, and I don't read anything on Facebook. I go to Twitter and keep my eyes on the left hand side, write my answers and that's it. And if I post something on YouTube, I don't look at the comments. In a sense I think that brings me back to what my own compulsions and motivations are. So if I do release something online, it's not for any other reason than that's the right thing for me at that time. I think it's so easy to get wrapped up in YouTube comments, people telling you what you should and should not do.
"A buddy of mine put something online the other day that I thought was just perfect; he said 'Reading YouTube comments and getting upset about it is like seeing a pile of dog shit and consciously stepping in it.' It was awesome (laughs) and it's exactly how I feel. So, put it this way... if you ever see an album from me with those kind of stupid things on it, that's because it's what I felt like doing at the time and not because John_Hosehead_443 said it was the right thing to do (laughs)."
BraveWords: Doing the Empath shows, what were the reactions from people that were expecting the Hevy Devy treatment? It's a new band with backing singers and Ché (Aimee Dorval) from Casualties Of Cool playing a lead vocal role, the setlist is quite varied and chill in some spots.
Devin: "The show, and the Order Of Magnitude DVD, it's a visual thing with all the costume changes and vibe changes. Backstage with all the costume changes... it was like The Gong Show (laughs). The show is meant to be seen, so I don't know what the experience is like audio-wise when you listen to it on CD. It's not that I don't care how the people react; that is somewhere in there, but I think I gave ample warning to the fans (laughs). When it was being advertised I went out of my way to say, 'Hey, it's gonna be weird, so if you're on the fence about it just don't go.' People came up to me and said 'I went and it was weird...' (laughs) but the tour did really well. I enjoyed.
"On one level, being an idealistic artist has its place, but I think it's folly - at least for me - to not take into consideration that I wouldn't be here without the audience. So, for every tour that I do like that, it's good for me to say 'Okay, now what do you want to hear?' It's like, I'll do a Casualties Of Cool for me, and a Deconstruction for you; just go back and forth with it."
BraveWords: We were talking about you stepping out of your comfort zone. Not having the Devin Townsend Project backing you up on the Empath tour and completely changing the on-stage environment was a great way to do that.
Devin: "There are no click tracks, no backing tracks, it's 10 people on stage. With the Devin Townsend Project there were a lot of backing tracks, and I couldn't figure out any other way to do the Empath shows without that many people. With the amount of layering stuff I tend to be interested in when I'm recording, to do it in an AC/DC kinda way... it's not riff-based material. Using backing tracks with DTP, after a while I got bored with it and wanted to try something else. I think that any progress I make in my life or career is a result of me putting myself in a position where the likelihood of failure is high. And with that, if I do succeed I feel like I've taken another step forward.
"Going into this one, I had this aesthetic vibe that I was trying to follow. I wanted to have 10 people on stage with no backing tracks, I wanted to have a lot of improv, and I didn't think of this at the beginning - it just ended up this way - that no one in the band played metal. Everybody was from a different musical field, so there were a lot of challenges. But, having that caliber of players made it so that even if it went off the rails a little bit it was cool. I thought it was a lot of fun."
BraveWords: I love the fact you released "Why?" from Order Of Magnitude. It's one of those Devin Townsend songs that pushes the level of weird you're known for on occasion to another level. I think it shocks people hearing you doing what is basically a Disney song in a live setting.
Devin: "I'll defend myself in the sense that I don't think it's weird. A lot of times people think I'm doing things because I'm trying to be provocative or trying consciously to be strange. I don't remember a time where that's been my objective, ever. Maybe I've pushed the envelope a couple of times, but I only did a song like 'Why?' because I wrote it and I thought it was cool. There's no ulterior motive. I love Disney songs (laughs).
"The Ocean Machine song 'Life' is kind of like a pop song, and people said 'You should write more pop songs.' No... I just felt like writing that one back then. It wasn't a strategic thing where our market analysis said that having a pop song as the second song on the album would broaden our throw. I wrote it and I put it on the album, and that was it. The same with 'Why?'; people are saying 'You should do a musical.' Um... no. I liked that song so I put it on Empath."
BraveWords: That's why it works.
Devin: "I agree. I totally agree because I'm interested in the song. I think if you're doing it because you're trying to be provocative, people are going to see through that. I think it's funny, and maybe it has to do with categorization, but there seems to be a need for things to adhere to certain formats. I think Empath, almost by design, was me sort of questioning that. As if to say 'Why aren't I allowed to do that?' The answer I came back with is 'Because you're not letting yourself do that.' Why is that? Because I want to be accepted and I don't want people to think that I'm crazy. But ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I can't control how other people feel about me or my work, and people that have typically liked what I do is because the music comes from a place of emotional authenticity as opposed to me trying to challenge the audience.
"I remember when Casualties Of Cool came out; some people said 'You're really testing your audience.' Not at all. That doesn't even play into it. I've got a life (laughs). Why would I invest the limited energy I have in a day to try and test the audience? In fact, I've got to reserve that energy for explaining it (laughs)."