Interview: Devin Townsend – Contemplating the Fate of Happy
Devin Townsend just wrote possibly the most upbeat record of his career and he’s damn excited about it. Tossing aside any worries of being rejected from the “heavy metal chess club” as he calls it, Townsend did exactly what he does best: write whatever comes into his mind and do it to the fullest extent possible. This time though it wasn’t contemplating the existential fate of the world, it was contemplating that life isn’t always so bad, the universe is awesome, and maybe we should finally go mow that lawn.
mxdwn: So the big topic of course is your new album Epicloud, coming out this month. It has a big epic sound, is that where the title comes from?
Devin Townsend: I’ll go with that, that sounds alright. This record is something I put a lot of effort into it being the way it is, almost as a reaction to how my career and how my life seems to go. Like, I’ll spend so much time being complicated and worrying about this, that, and the other thing, that I feel like on some level I neglected to acknowledge the part of me that just wanted to make big, simple, positive music. In making that decision for myself, I took it as far as I felt I could go, gospel choirs and the real big epic sort of stuff. In the whole scheme of it, I’m 25 records into my career, I’ve been doing this for so long, and nothing I’ve done has really been the same thing twice, so this is just another example of it. I’ve always wanted to make a straight forward, accessible type of record and I’m very happy with it. It remains to be seen whether or not that sentiment will be shared by the people who’ve been supportive of what I do but at least its honest, right?
You think by now people would be used to you doing something completely different every single time though, right?
I find that a lot of the time now the reaction of the record that I get are technically not the people who are used to it, it’s people who are new to it who are expecting the record that came before it. It seems like it always takes about a year for people to understand the prior record. I remember with the record label I had done Terria and when I first delivered it to them they were like, “What the hell is this?” Then a year later they were like, “Oh that was really cool. We get it. We like what you did with Terria.” Then I was like, “Well that’s unfortunate because here’s Accelerated Evolution,” and the reaction across the board was, “Well we wanted more Terria.” With each record that goes by it seems the reaction is based on the one prior and Epicloud is no different. The reaction tends to be, people were finally understanding what Deconstruction and Ghost were about and it seems like that’s where people are at the moment. I suspect that when I do the next record after Epicloud there will be a certain portion of people that want more of that, so its just business as usual my friend.
So is the next record going to be the Ziltoid Part 2 that you were talking about doing?
That’s kind of a couple years down the road. It’s a really big project and I want to take my time with it. The next immediate project is a record that I’ve been writing at the same time as Epicloud called Casualties of Cool and its sort of like haunted Johnny Cash style music. Its as far removed from the over the top bombast of Epicloud as I think I can possibly get, but I think that’s also indicative of the writing process. Once I finish doing a project I’ve spent so much time doing it that I’m sick of it and I want do something else, and then by the time I finish the next one I’m sick of that and I just keep on cycling through these things based on nothing but a true desire to do it and a real love of music.
Since you use so many different styles in your music do you pick a style and set out to do it or the need to do it just comes about naturally?
Definitely it happens naturally. It surprises me as much as it surprises anyone because the way I tend to write is I don’t second guess myself that much, if at all and I just pick up my guitar. I’ve always got a guitar some where around, you know I’ve got one on the vehicle we’re touring in, or in my living room, or a friend’s house. I’ve always got guitars around me and I constantly play them. I really like having my hands on a guitar; it’s just a big part of my nature. As a result of that, as my life changes and as my influences shift around, as life provides, the notes that my hands tend to choose are representative of what’s going on when I finally sit down and make demos. For example with Epicloud I had no idea I was going to make a big Def Leppard-type record, I thought I was going to be working on new Ziltoid music. I had the guitar in my hands I was plunking around and no Ziltoid stuff came out it was all this stuff, and so I was like, “OK, well fuck it. Let’s just record this,” and get it out of my system. So I did. I guess the combination of that sort of process with my very obsessive sort of mentality means that whatever idea I stumble upon I take it as far as I could possibly take it. At the end of it I bring my head out of it and stand back and listen to it and in some instances I’m like, “What the fuck did I just make?” Like I remember when we did Alien by Strapping Young Lad, I remember standing back from that and just being like, “What?!” I put so much effort into it, then when I stood back from it I was just like, “Where did that come from?” And to be honest, Epicloud is the same thing. I stood back from this and listened to this big, shiny, positive pop record and I’m just like, “What !?” I’ve gotten to the point now where I can’t spend too much time worrying about it or stressing about it. If I am inspired to do it there’s a real good chance it’s a part of my nature and I’m attached to it in an emotional way. From there I just have to leave it up to everybody else to decide whether or not they like it.
I find it interesting how each record itself uses a lot of different styles within it but there’s always cohesion. Like how you said you take each theme as far as it can go. It doesn’t seem like you go into it trying to do that, I’m just amazed that if you’re just letting whatever come out that it still all seems to match.
I appreciate that, that’s nice. I would say if I’m interested enough in a theme then my interest in that is enough that I can complete it in the way that it wants to be. If half way through a record, this has happened to me before, half way through I have to see if the theme that inspired me to start it was extensive enough for me to take it to its logical conclusion. Sometimes it just isn’t and I’ll have to abandon a project 5 songs into it because I just run out of steam and the story isn’t ultimately that interesting. But something like Epicloud, for example, when I started coming out with these riffs and choruses and lyrics and all this, I thought well it’s based on getting over it. Its based on connection to reality that is pragmatic, or realistic. Realistic in the sense that there is good and bad, and there is tons of horrible shit that happens on the planet and all that. But really the choice that I found myself in artistically is you can focus on that horrible shit which I’ve done for a long time, or you can focus on your own existential crisis in whatever form that’s in at this age, or you can just make a conscious decision to do something that promotes a frame of mind that is separate from that. And not in a deluded sense, I wanted to make something that was heavy and positive and say, “Hey things are rough all over but lets not focus on that right now lets focus on this, and lets make it big!” Once that concept and that theme seemed to interest me enough then it was just a matter of effort to try and complete it.
Two songs I really like on Epicloud were “More” and “Kingdom.” “Kingdom” was already part of your live set right?
“Kingdom” was originally on a record I wrote in 2000 called Physicist and at that time I kind of made a bunch of mistakes in my personal life and I wrote that song almost as an apology. Then after 15 years, or whatever its been, you have choices as a person to either integrate those things that you’ve made mistakes on or just keep repeating them. So I guess I found that I kind of learned a few lessons during that time. So when that song ended up becoming a staple of our live set I thought it was interesting how the original energy of it being kind of an apology ended up being more of an affirmation of how I’ve changed. So when it came time to do this record, I thought it would be a solid contribution to the energy the project seemed to want to take on. The song “More”, it’s a Queens of the Stone Age type of vibe in a sort of Def Leppard way. I think that the point of that song is obvious. Its like no matter where we’re at in life this acquisition of money, or power, or experience, or whatever is like this insatiable void in humanity and myself and most people. I know its probably a substitute for things society had separated us from. So its like we keep throwing shit into the void in hopes that its going to fill it but it obviously never does. I think there’s a kind of irony to that that makes a great rock n’ roll song.
“True North” is also an interesting track. I like it a lot, but it’s so damn happy [laughing]
Yeah well consciously so.
Not that that’s bad.
No, no it’s definitely awesome. You know I think that just to back up a bit. It seems that in my own career and my own world, specifically after doing Strapping Young Lad for so long, and having so much of my personality being wrapped up in that, and its heavy music. It seemed like after Strapping was over I had a lot of companies, and tour agencies, and management people, and all this shit, that were like. “We’re going to pay you, and pay you well, if you want to go out there and tell the world to ‘go fuck itself.’” But after you have changed your frame of mind to the point where doing that is just a pose, then its like you might as well be busting rocks for a living. So as a real conscious decision I tried to make Epicloud like, “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to default back to that.” If it fails then fuck it, it fails, right? I don’t want to use whatever shit I’ve learned in my life to say something that I’m uncomfortable with. I’d rather put energy into making the statement that potentially just falls on deaf ears, then just kind of fueling that part of me that gets eaten alive by that sort of shit. So yeah the whole records got that sense of positivity to it and there’s a lot of people who like heavy music and I totally understand it. They’ll just be like “I’m not into that, that doesn’t work for me” and that’s totally cool. Certainly as a musician or an artist or how ever I want to define myself I’m not in the position where I’m trying to convince people to buy what I do. But what I am doing is coming from a position of honesty and I guess the ultimate hope is that regardless of whether or not people like it that is acknowledged.
At least you’re happy with it, right? Art to gratify the artist, as they say.
Sure. I guess the thing is, it just surprises people sometimes because I get the impression that people see what I’ve done in my music and my career and suspect that the next stage will be a certain thing and it very rarely is. No one knows me except for me, right? I really detest assumptions on my nature or what my music or personality is ultimately meant to represent or which direction it’s meant to go. So I just follow my own kind of trip and it leads to me some odd places this one is very positive, very shiny, very elusive in a way, emotionally its hidden while also being exceptionally emotional in a way. I think the follow up record Casualties of Cool, will help describe why that’s the case, but to me, to the average Joe’s listening to it, it’ll just be a bunch of songs.
I think it’s a great record and I think it is kind of heavy in its own way. There are lots of bands that do the epic, big thing and are still considered metal bands.
I guess when I first did it I was concerned I was going to get kicked out of the heavy metal chess club, the one that plays 10,000 notes a minute. Then I started thinking, “You know, I’m not even in that club so what am I worried about?” With Deconstruction there was definitely an element that I put into that records like, “Check it out, listen to how complicated this is.” I think the point of Deconstruction was maybe lost on some bands, cause I notice there maybe some bands that were influenced by that record, but I find the influence of that record is more based on the technical ends of it. You know like the million note thing and 50 different harmonies that don’t fit together, that are sort of crazy glued together and most of this weird sort of chaos. But the point of Deconstruction was like, “This is not music to me, this is an exercise in futility. We’re at this current stage of human evolution where there’s this massive need to understand everything, when its impossible. Were not wired to understand these things and the need to control your environment ultimately ends in chaos, because its beyond us, we’re apes. I think the one thing that we can understand, and I guess this is what I was trying to say with Epicloud, is that we don’t understand it. Anyone who tells you they understand it, or claims they’ve got an answer, is full of shit. And that doesn’t change the fact that we’re in the presence of some awesome shit, you know? Like the universe is incredible and nature is unbelievable and the good parts of humanity are worth fighting for in some sense and the bad parts are inevitable. You know, I think that after Deconstruction, after the point I was trying to make with that record, a record like Epicloud is inevitable for me. Look, I don’t want that shit anymore, I don’t have the patience as a 40-year-old adult to try and figure out the nature of the universe because I have so much other shit that I need to do . You know, I need to mow the lawn for fuck’s sake.
And spend some time figuring out the nature of yourself instead, right?
That’s it, that’s it exactly. I think there’s that real need. In music there’s that need to kind of state these things, or hypothesize about figuring out the nature of the world, and I don’t think in and of itself that’s a bad thing. But I think if it eclipses the emotional elements of it then I think, it’s not bad it just doesn’t do anything for me. So with Epicloud I tried to make it really simple and I tried to make the emotional content really direct.
That’s very awesome! I’m curious, how do you feel about the term “prog” or “progressive metal?” Do you get that label a lot with your music? Do you think that it’s a pigeon hole? I think a lot of people use the term for stuff that’s just weird and different and they don’t know how else to label it.
Its like it goes in cycles, you know everybody wanted to be “prog” in the 70’s and then the 80’s came and everybody wanted to get laid. Then once everybody got laid they wanted to be Nirvana. Then once everyone wanted to be Nirvana no one wanted to admit that they knew how to play guitar any more. Then everybody just wanted to be heavy because it’s a defense mechanism in a lot of ways for wimpy kids. I mean if your legitimately heavy you don’t need to tell anybody but there’s a lot of people who are like, “Oh we’re all heavy now ok so fuck you.” Then as things change one or two things happen, you know whatever it is, whatever band instigates that in metal for example like Meshuggah or Dillinger Escape Plan or Tool, or any of these bands were everybody’s like, “Oh shit, well its ok to be prodigious again?” So we have that arch happening again where to be “prog” is great because it allows everybody to nerd out on gear and play a bunch of wailing arpeggios. As far as people labeling what I play it’s like, “I don’t care, label it whatever you want.” What’s that old saying? “Call me whatever you want just don’t call me late for dinner.”
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