When initially ‘introduced’ to vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Devin Townsend via the oft-controversial Steve Vai opus Sex & Religion (1993), I found myself utterly dumbfounded. Anticipating an entirely instrumental follow-up to the ingenious Passion And Warfare (1990), the resulting sonic onslaught (most notably the Desmond Child co-penned “In My Dreams With You” and the incendiary “Still My Bleeding Heart”) served as a radical stylistic departure. Even the more-than-considerable presence of bassist T.M. Stevens and drummer Terry Bozzio failed to salvage the oddly doomed project. Fortunately for all parties involved, Townsend wasted little time launching both Extreme Metal titans Strapping Young Lad and a morphing solo career. Now, twenty-five (!) years later, Townsend is once again the focus of intensified attention with the release of the stunning Transcendence (2016).
Todd: Creatively speaking, how did the writing and recording processes for Transcendence differ from what you have done previously? Are there been any fundamental differences in the way you operate in a recording studio?
Devin: “I think the process has always been the same in terms of what I end up writing about. It’s pretty much in direct correlation to whatever progress or lack of thereof that I’ve made as a person in that year, basically. In that sense, it was the same as any other project that I’ve done, but I the differences comes from the way I went about showing it to the band. After Ziltoid II (2014), I I realized that I may be a little bored of doing things using the same routine. I was running out of emotions to fuel this. I started analyzing more of my creative processes and how I interact with people. …My fear of how much my identity was lying within music and how unhealthy that was ultimately. I basically solicited opinions from not only the band, but the label and management. It didn’t necessarily change my writing, but it certainly was humbling. It put me in a position where I wasn’t always right. Transcendence, as the title would suggest, is about getting over it. The end results of recording that record and the process that I went through showing the guys the parts and having their opinions be a part my creative process was something I think can really help what I’ll be doing in the future. It was a really cool process, man.”
Todd: What prompted you to record a cover (of the Ween rarity) “Transdermal Celebration” for Transcendence?
Devin: “In terms of the process for that record, I wanted to let go of some of the control. I wanted to end the record with a song that wasn’t mine and I also wanted to stay as true to the original as I could. I didn’t want to change it, I just wanted to make it. I just wanted to sing it, basically. The thing with that song is I remember hearing it when it came out and thinking ‘That’s one of the best songs that’s ever been written’. I can’t make it better, I just wanted to sing it. Having it on the record was a way for me to not only underline that letting go some of the control was something I needed, but it was also me saying ‘This song is the shit and it’s an honor to sing it.’ I saw them on tour in Quebec at the second to last show they did in Vancouver (01/24/17) when they imploded. It was great. …Everyone was super high and I remember thinking ‘Wow, this is fucking heavy, dude’.”
Todd: You’ve worked with a staggering array of different ‘sidemen’. Why have so many of them come and gone?
Devin: “For the most part, they stay. It’s as if I’m in a polygamous relationship with the people that I work with, but, they don’t go anywhere, typically. I’ve been working with these guys for almost ten years, but in that time, I’ve also worked with a shit load of other people. If marriage was that easy, it’ll be great. It’d be like ‘Look, we’re going to get married. Everything is going to be good. I’ll support you, but I’m just going to fuck a whole bunch of other people’, ya know? But it doesn’t work like that. It’s like ‘No, you’re not’. With music, the fact that I can do that is great. I can have a home base to come back to, a band of guys that I trust and I enjoy the company of that work well together. But whenever I feel like doing something else, I get to go do it, and that would account for the amount of different people. Most of those relationships are not meant to be more than ‘We’re going to do this record’ or ‘We are going to play these shows together’. …It’s on a whim sometimes and it’s often lots of fun.”
Todd: In terms of becoming introduced to new people, is there a specific process you use to find who and/or what you’re looking for? I imagine networking, whether you initiated it or not, is an extremely important aspect.
Devin: “I never look for people. What usually happens is by touring as much as I do and having done this as long as I do, the network of people that I know is massive and growing all the time. If I’m writing something, and I’m like ‘You know this would really sound cool with? A bagpipe player’, I’ll be like ‘Who do I know that plays the bagpipes?’ and I’ll call him. Or, when I did (the Devin Townsend Band effort) Ghost (2011) and I was like ‘Man, I would love to have a flautist on here’. I remember when I was a kid, I used to listen to (American musical duo) Emerald Web. I wondered if (Emerald Web co-founder) Kat Epple was online, so I contacted her and said ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing’. …When I heard her sing, I was like ‘Okay, I’m going to make a mental note that if I ever again do anything that’s got a Bluesy Folk feel to it, she’ll be perfect for it’. Eventually, some of that music started coming out of me and I was like ‘Okay, I’ll call then’. I’m not scouring the internet looking at demos to try and find the next person I work with. I’m writing randomly and freely and then, whenever I find that during that process the music that I come up with calls for something, I go through the amount of people that I know and see if I can find anybody that can fill that void. But it’s reciprocal too, ya know? I’m not looking for anybody, but sometimes people are like ‘You know what? We should work together’ and I’ll be like ‘Fuck that, man’ because it doesn’t work like that. My interactions with people are really casual. It’s for sure great to have that network of people to work with, but you’ve also got to think that I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years. …If I met one person a year, which would be absurd, I’d still have thirty people to choose from or talk to.”
Todd: In regards to the set list for your upcoming tours, how heavily have you been showcasing material from Transcendence? Have you also been attempting to represent your entire catalog? That would be a real challenge.
Devin: “I’ve done two hundred shows this year, which as you can imagine, is insane. I’ve been home for maybe three weeks, and I haven’t thought about it at all. …I’ve got my gear together and I’ve been talking to the band on a daily basis about what the set list should be, but I’ve been taking care of home things. I’ve been sitting around eating, taking care of myself and having baths. Dude, I haven’t thought about it yet. In about a week and a half, I’ll be thinking about it. I can imagine that it’s going to be a healthy amount of Transcendence, but we’ve already toured the States. I want to change the set list, so it’ll be different than the last time, at the very least. It’s easier now that I ask the band because I get a little clouded. What I like and what I want to hear is typically not the stuff that works live. I’ll be like ‘Guys, I really want to work on this song and work it into this set’ and they’ll be like ‘I don’t know about that’. And then I’ll be like ‘Come on, just bear with me’ and then we work it out. Typically, we’d get out there and play “Secret Sciences” (from Transcendence), but they’re the songs that lose people. Now that I asked them, they’re like ‘We should start with this. We should do a couple of slammers here. We should do some stuff off the new record’. Having some objective points of view has been great for our sets.”
Todd: Does the inherently chaotic nature of the music industry negatively impact your ‘home’ life? As a husband and father, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for you to be away from everyone for an extended period.
Devin: “Lots (laughs), but there’s also a resiliency that comes from it as well. I like that analogy that if you have a rock tumbler, the things that make the rocks beautiful is the friction that’s inside. …They’re bouncing against each other, and you put a bit of travel in there. Yes, it’s challenging. It knocks your protective coating off for sure, but you become somebody that you would’ve never had been had you not had that opportunity. That also depends on you as a person rising to the occasion and not letting it destroy you. It can be very easy to do with being away from your family that much. Traveling that much, specifically in this unreal environment of being in a band where a lot of times things are projected. People may project their emotional interpretation of your work as it being you versus the music that you’ve made. If somebody loves your music, then they love you, but if someone hates your music then they hate you. I think if you’re tired and you’re lonely and of all those things, it’s very easy to let that shit go to your head. I’m proud to say, with no small amount of pride, that I think I’ve come through this whole thing pretty well. I ended up getting a bunch of dodgy tattoos, but other than that, I think I’ve got my head screwed on pretty good. My family bears the brunt of it, but I do take them away and we’ll go on a vacation. Then when I’m off the road, I’m usually off for eight months to a year, so it’s a year on and a year off. And I’ve been with my wife now for almost thirty years, man. She knew what she signed up for and vice versa.”
Todd: At this particular junction in your career, do you foresee yourself releasing new music from Strapping Young Lad? It’s been quite some time since the release of The New Black (2006), but demand remains so strong.
Devin: “I don’t think so. I may do something heavy, but the way that I write is typically in line with whatever is going on in my life. When I was in my mid-twenties, that’s who I was. Strapping was it for me. That’s what I wanted to do and as a result of that, I had nothing but fuel for that and nothing but passion to make those statements. Then, when I felt like well that fuel was used up or I had learned why it was that I felt like that, then I was like ‘Okay, what’s next?’. That’s who I was when I was twenty-five. When people are saying to me ‘Hey, man, at the age of forty-five, you should go back to that thing that you did when you were twenty-four’ and I’m like ‘What? You can do that? Really?’ because I can’t. Not only do I not have the energy to do it in the same way, I just don’t care about the things that drove that anymore. Getting in front of a microphone and saying to everybody ‘I fucking hate you right now’ just doesn’t make any sense for my life. But who knows? It’s funny because when I talk about it, it people seem to think that it can actually happen that way. It’s like ‘No, no, no, no. Dude, how old are you? Do you still feel the same way you did when you were twenty-five?’. It’s crazy.”
Todd: Taking into consideration how caustic the Strapping Young Lad material was, what fueled those passions?
Devin: “The thing that made that passionate was that I hated feeling like that at the time, so I made that music so I could work through it, ya know? It’s the same thing with (the Devin Townsend solo effort) Infinity (1998), which is another example. And that was a record that didn’t even get that type of attention that City (1997) did. I can remember making Infinity and thinking ‘I can’t fucking wait for this to be over’ because of what was coming out of me. It was a direct response to the things that I had put into my life. The most important thing in my life was to make that sound. Even at the time, I can remember thinking ‘God, I can’t wait for this lesson to be done’.”
Todd: The songwriting experience from that era must have been incredibly cathartic. Almost akin to a cleansing.
Devin: “Oh my God. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. In fact, when I listen to Alien (2005) or City or anything like that now, I’m so proud of it. I’m proud that I went there because I think if had I not taken it to the level that I took it, those records wouldn’t have worked. I was in such a chaotic frame of mind back then. I was willing to take that sentiment to whatever conclusion it needed to come to in the same way that I feel like I’m doing with the symphony I’m working on. It’s the same, it’s just a different set of circumstances that’s inspiring the content.”
Todd: Do you view each new release as a virtual snapshot of where you were in your life at that particular time?
Devin: “One hundred percent, dude. This is why it perhaps seems confusing to some people when they say, ‘Well, Slayer has been making Slayer records for a very long time’ and I’m like ‘Yes, but the method that they employ is fundamentally different than what I do’. I think a lot of those bands chose to be in a band. Maybe when they were younger, they were like ‘Okay, we’re going to join a band. This going to be our direction. This is what we’re going to do. This is going to be our aesthetic’. But I’m forty-five now. In a lot of ways, I have no idea how I ended up here. There was never a moment where I was like ‘I’m going to go out of my way to become a musician’. That didn’t happen until I started making demos. Just as a nature of wanting to progress, I’d really started to push for it, but it wasn’t ever a lifelong goal. There just didn’t ever not seem to be music in my world.”
Todd: During the actual songwriting process, do you consciously know you’re documenting aspects of your life?
Devin: “I don’t think I’m clever enough to know what’s going on in my life, but I think I am curious enough to put the pieces together. By the end of a year, I’m like ‘I guess this is what happened’. But it’s not like I was thinking ‘This is going to be a metaphor for the parts of my personality that I’m currently analyzing’. That was never the thought. It started out as ‘I’m going to put googly eyes on a piece of clay, and now, that clay needs a theme song’. Retroactively, things makes sense to me. I’m not even looking for conclusions. I’m not trying to put some significance onto a space alien or something that’s not even there. It seems to be that when it’s done, I’m like ‘Huh, I guess you really were processing your environment all along and that’s the way it came out’. It works in two ways. It’s completely subconscious, but it’s also inquisitive, too. I just follow it where it leads me.”
Todd: As a musician, it’s your responsibility to follow those threads whenever they appear. It’s an absolute must.
Devin: “I agree one hundred percent. And what’s funny is that I’ve become pretty adept at analyzing myself. And a lot of that is because I get interviewed so much. …There has been like thirty years of interviews where people are like ‘Why did you do that?’ and I’m like ‘Fuck if I know, man’. That was my first reaction years ago. They’d be like ‘Why did you do the record that you did’ and I would be like ‘I don’t know. I just wanted to do it’, but that doesn’t cut it. You have to stop and really think about it. I find that the analysis that comes retroactively with these things happens because you’re accountable for it. Whenever I finish an album cycle, I do hundreds and hundreds of interviews. The questions are almost always what they’re given on the one sheet, so you’d better know exactly what it is you’re doing or else those two or three hundred interviews are going to suck (laughs)”.
Todd: In hindsight, how do you feel about the Sex And Religion era of your career? As a life-long Steve Vai fan, particularly of the Flex-Able (1984) and Passion And Warfare (1990) era, the music was a tremendous surprise.
Devin: “Well, I’m really good friends with (former Alcatrazz, Frank Zappa and Whitesnake lead guitarist) Steve (Vai) now, which is great. I talked to him yesterday. We’re doing things together and we’re good friends, so it’s really cool. There was a fifteen year span where I hated everything about that project, but I don’t think it had much to do with the project, the music or Steve. It had to do with my preconceptions of what it was going to be. I was a kid from Vancouver and was like ‘I want to go to LA’. I didn’t realize what my connection to music was. When I went down there, I didn’t realize that music is everything to me. It has difficult to see music used like a commodity, to see people trying to write hit singles on purpose or using chords that have been exhaustively investigated through market research as to what sells. I remember being like ‘My God, this is totally contrary to what my perception of music was’. When I started Strapping Young Lad, I kept thinking to myself ‘If it’s not about the beauty, then I just want it to burn’, which was my reaction to it at the time. Through doing Strapping Young Lad, I learned about accountability and what you say coming back to you. All of that is a direct result of those experiences and Steve’s influence. Without him, without Sex And Religion, I probably wouldn’t have what I’ve got going on today at all. But there’s also something about it that I thought and still think was awkward. Steve was coming off of Passion And Warfare and my involvement with him really wasn’t what people wanted to hear. Some people still like what I did, but it was like ‘Here’s Steve Vai’ and all they wanted to hear was him.”
Todd: Personally, I wanted to hear Passion And Warfare ‘redux’. I wasn’t the only one who shared this sentiment.
Devin: “To be honest, I probably would have too. The fact that I was the face of that resulted in me receiving a fair amount of criticism. My reaction to that was what started to fuel Strapping Young Lad. I was like ‘Well, here’s this then’, but such is life, dude. You follow it where you follow it. The thing is, I hate looking back at that time and thinking of myself in the same way because I was an eighteen year old kid when I was doing that. It’s crazy. When I first met Steve, he was ten years younger than I am right now. I couldn’t even imagine, ya know?”