Devin Townsend talks empathy and symphonies

Devin Townsend talks empathy and symphonies

Mad genius Devin Townsend and his band will be opening for Clutch on their Psychic Warfare tour when it stops at Upstate Concert Hall on Dec. 27. Townsend hasn’t spent much time as an opener lately. At 45 his solo career has exploded. Once known as the nihilistic, balding dread-head at the helm of industrial metal anarchists Strapping Young Lad, in 2006 Townsend sought peace by separating himself from his chaotic persona. His wife had given birth to their first son and he was battling mental health issues. He swore off live touring, cleaned himself up, adopted a vegan lifestyle and focused on solo recording.

Townsend was discovered in the early ‘90s and recruited to be a touring vocalist for Steve Vai. Townsend quickly realized that he’d become a puppet; his musical talents were going to waste. He worked on a side project with Jason Newsted of Metallica–a project crushed by the other members of Metallica once they caught wind of it. Townsend recorded guitars for industrial outfit Frontline Assembly, but he was still unsatisfied. His music wasn’t getting any attention. In 1994 Century Media offered him a contract to record some “extreme music” albums. Strapping Young Lad was born.

The band’s first two albums were critically acclaimed, combining the bombast of industrial with the drama and prodigiousness of prog rock and the quirks of Queen or Frank Zappa. SYL shows were raucous and wild. The band began to peter out, though, as Townsend focused on a myriad of side and solo projects with a more ambient nature. This writer caught the band nearly 20 times from the early ‘90s to 2007. During a show at The Chance, Townsend took to the stage during Swedish metal band Meshuggah’s performance and casually defecated in a bucket. Eventually Townsend found himself grappling with mental illness, and was diagnosed as bipolar.

It’s the kind of chaos, the kind of reputation you could see wanting to escape when becoming a father. But Townsend’s exile was quickly broken when he released Ziltoid a concept album about an alien looking to capture the world’s finest cup of coffee. The project won critical acclaim and introduced Townsend to a host of new fans.

Townsend has recorded 11 solo projects, 7 under the Devin Townsend Project moniker, and 5 as the lead singer/songwriter of Strapping Young Lad.

David Howard King: You’re a man of many personalities and emotional levels. Each show you play tends to take on a very specific emotional tone–whether joyful or tormented–and you never know what to expect.

Devin Townsend:  All the things I’ve chosen, whatever dramas, choices I’ve made, it’s hard to feel the process because I’ve been trying to refine my life one step at a time. One of my life goals is to be analytical enough that things shouldn’t be repeating and I’m in a much better place than I’ve ever been. I hope that continues to get better. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with these three lives I live. It feels to me like to do everything effectively at once I have to barely get a passing grade on everything I do 

My only objective as a musician is to follow where I’m at progressively and to get to more of an interesting place–not only for me but for my audience. So I went from touring again after I had a kid. I had stopped to deal with bad habits, drinking, smoking. So when you first settle into touring it’s this natural feeling and you are happy and free. But then the realities of being away from home, away from family begins to set in again. I hate forcing emotions, I hate pretending to be in a frame of mind I’m not in. So if my vibe changes as a person, the vibe I give off as a musician follows that and I’ll take it wherever it leads.

DHK: You’ve had an stunning cycle of albums under the DTP moniker. What’s next?

DT: I’m doing A symphony right now but Transcendence did very well so there is a lot of pressure to follow that up. I should, but I’m not in that headspace anymore and if I force it, it might just suck. I’m really interested in making weird-ass music right now. I have 5 different directions I could go–one is working on the symphony and if I had 2 years to spare it would be the next album for sure but i don’t want to rush this one.

DHK: You’ve produced a number of acclaimed albums for bands like Lamb of God, Darkest Hour, Misery Signals and Soilwork. Would you consider doing it again? Your album Deconstruction features appearances from folks in The Dillinger Escape Plan, Between the Buried and Me and other groups you haven’t produced. Would you like to work with them?

DT: Well I’d do it when its right for me primarily. The situation has be to be right. I hate being rushed, I don’t like absorbing people. I’m fairly empathetic in nature and I can’t turn off other peoples thoughts and that makes it really taxing. It does entertain me to work with people who I share a certain sensibility with. I spend so much time producing my own stuff that it is so easy to disappear up my own ass and I get tired of my own structures. So yes, if a label gave me a ton of money and the ability to really implement my vision in a project with people I thought were really cool I’d do it. But labels didn’t really want to invest in something like that 10 years ago. I doubt it will happen anytime soon. And my friends in established bands probably don’t really need me to refine their sound, or insert myself the way I have on other albums. I wouldn’t do it unless I really needed to do it.

DHK: So much of your music appears to come from trying to improve yourself mentally–to calm the various voices in your head and to be there as a father and perhaps leader. Does it matter to you if your fans see past the complex time signatures and chord structures to tap into your humanity?

DT: The social commentary on my albums is really about myself in relationship to other people, trying to better myself, to get past drinking, pot, being cruel to other people. Lately I’ve been focused on having kids, being a boss–it’s all so new for me and that is where all of this comes from–trying to balance that with playing music. So if my commentary on my own connectedness with people impacts or inspires others that’s great. But for some people it’s too much and I can relate. If I was in a position where I felt a tiny bit of pressure I would say, “I’m out!” But I’m finding out that I can do this now. I’m in a different place and I can only speak for myself.


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