Interview: Devin Townsend
We caught up with the heavy metal songwriter ahead of the much-anticipated release of the Devin Townsend Project’s new album
Canadian metal songwriter Devin Townsend is one of the most highly regarded writers within his genre, one who has never been afraid to evolve his sound throughout the course of a career that has spanned over 20 years. Known for his ornate and technical style, Townsend began by performing in heavy metal bands during his high school years. It was after being asked to perform vocals on guitar legend Steve Vai’s 1993 album Sex & Religion, that Townsend’s career in music began.
Following his work for Vai, Townsend released his first album as the much-loved extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad in 1995, before adding a touring band to take the songs out on the road. Strapping Young Lad would release another four albums – with Townsend also releasing a series of solo albums and two as the Devin Townsend Band – before disbanding in 2007.
Since 2009 Townsend has been most known for his work with the Devin Townsend Project, a band that’s known much for their brutish riffs as for their operatic intricacies. We caught up with Devin ahead of the release of their superb seventh studio album, Transcendence, and discovered that this record marks a unique moment in the articulation of his musical ideas.
How do you feel to be releasing the new record?
“I’ve been doing this sound that’s on Transcendence for many years now, and the fact that this record is really good and that I really do care about it after so many years is a smashing success as far as I’m concerned.
“It’s so easy to lose the idealism with things like this. I’m always suspicious of bands that keep the same sound and identity after so many years, like how do you keep the energy and the interest and how do you tell people who you’re still into it when you’re not?
“This record, because of the process of including the other guys in the creative process, I think has a real energy to it that I was shocked this record would have after so many years. Ultimately I think that it bodes well for the future and it provides the audience with a really healthy listen, it’s not a toxic record at all it’s very constructive.”
Was it a conscious decision to take a more inclusive approach this time?
“Yeah I think so. It was conscious in that a knew I needed an angle to write from: for better or worse the way that I participate in the writing of an album is very much by finding something to sink my teeth into thematically, whether or not that is Sky Blue being about death, or Ziltoy being a metaphor for whatever he was a metaphor for, City being a city. Everything’s got a really definite trajectory and I look for that, because without that it’s just a collection of songs and doesn’t become an album and in my world I really appreciate making albums. So it was something that I was thinking of very clearly from the beginning.
“It wasn’t until I started to deconstruct my process and my need to control the Devin Townsend Project and the way in which the band was founded (in that they were essentially hired guns who played everything how I wanted it, which was something which was unsustainable given the relationships that we had developed) that it became clear that bringing the other members into the process was an angle which was worth pursuing. Fortunately that resulted in a lot of fresh inspiration and good will within the band.”
Did you find it a relief to throw off the shackles and draw other people into the process?
“It’s 50/50. In some ways it was a release, a weight off my shoulders, and in another way it was challenging, because you’re stepping into a dark room and letting go of that pattern of control that I had created throughout my life. It’s not a simple thing to change yourself, in any way, whether mentally, spiritually, etc.. it’s a challenge. So as it was a weight off my shoulders it was also a very daunting prospect too.”
Did including the other members of the band in the process extend to your lyric writing?
“No. In fact as a description of how the writing process went, I wrote 45 to 60 songs in various degrees of completion. But I would bring the songs to rehearsal each week that I thought perhaps would resonate with the this group of individuals and then try them. The ones that seemed to flow with us we would then dissect and I would have an opportunity to explain to each one of the guys why their part was doing what it did, how it related to what I was trying to say emotionally with the lyrics. From there their contributions came in terms of interpreting those parts in-line with how we had become a band over the last ten years.
“It was relieving for me in certain scenarios; where perhaps I wanted to have something that was very complicated into one part, but I was also predisposed with other music and songs so didn’t have the time to invest in that part to make it as cool as it could be. So I might say to Dave [Young, guitarist in the Devin Townsend Project] “could you take this line here, that I’ve written in a very simplistic way, and flesh it out into something contains the same sort of tonal information, but that sounds more angular and complicated.
“In that way we were able to utilise the time that we had spent together becoming this band in ways that were very constructive, because I was able to farm out these ideas and they would 9/10 come back with something that was very in-line with what I wanted, just with their own flavour on it. But for the most part, other than the song Failure, I still wrote this record very much like any other record. There were certain songs that I wrote in the presence of them and therefore they contributed just being in the room. But it was more in the articulation of the parts rather than the physical songwriting that I really felt their contributions were the strongest.”
Do you think that your fans will feel the benefit of the input of the other band members when you play the new album live?
“Yeah. There’s a part of me that I think always craved the attention of being a singular figure, to be Devin Townsend and to be this fantasy of a lone wolf and all those romantic notions that come alongside that. But I find now that I get older I have much less desire to be that character. Whether or not the articulation of the music is the same, I do like being part of a band, being part of a team and a community.
“I think that it benefits the fans when the other members have more power. Because they have more invested in it and that’s not just like they have a day job and they play my music, they’re a part of that energy. That energy and that passion is why people go and watch live music and I feel that it’s five people now instead of one. Ultimately I’m still there and I’m still the same character that I’ve been before – the lone wolf – but when I’m touring with people I wanna be part of a group and I want it to be a healthy environment. It makes no sense for me to participate in something different to that and it’s not sustainable. The amount of money the Devin Townsend Project makes means that I can’t afford to do it any other way.”
Do you think that your fondness for being a “lone wolf” has fed into your fondness for making concept albums?
“I think so. The thing that I bring to the table is that I’ve been very fortunate to be born with the ability to visualise music. So when I do have a creative idea the end is in sight in a way that I think is very singular; left to my own devices I could take any of these ideas and I could complete them to within an accuracy of the original vision that I think that people can relate to and that will always be the case. But times change and I think that with the Devin Townsend Project, other than anything else, I’ve been playing this style of music for so long that it needed something fresh. The singular vision that I have can extend to any number of other projects that I do. But I think with the Devin Townsend Project I questioned how it fitted into what I want to do and I had used up all the fuel of fitting my ideas into a singular parameter. So I think that explains why I chose to go down this route.”
Devin Townsend’s new album Transcendence is released on 9 September via HevyDevy Records. Find out more about Devin at: hevydevy.com