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Exclusive! Interview With Strapping Young Lad's Devin Townsend

By Chris Hawkins, Contributor
Thursday, February 20, 2003 @ 10:39 PM

Chris Hawkins Sits Down With S

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Itís the year 2003 and finally the wait is over. Strapping Young Lad has resurfaced after an extended hiatus with the quintessential soundtrack for right now. Their new album, simply titled ďSYLĒ and clocking in at just over 39 minutes is full of the bitterness, rage, and aggression that pervades the human conscience in these troubled times. Perhaps it took times like these for SYLís mastermind, Devin Townsend to thankfully make the decision to bring back the band that was always a notch above whatever ďheavinessĒ the ďband of the momentĒ had to offer. Devin has been quite busy in the years between ďSYLĒ and their last release ďCityĒ, working on his own inner demons with various solo albums including Ocean Machine, Infinity, Physicist, and Terria. It was an honor to sit and chat with Devin shortly before he was set to take the stage with Strapping Young Lad on their tour with Nile, Napalm Death, Dark Tranquility, and The Berzerker. Read on as Devin talks about the new album, his new solo project, and much more.

KNAC.COM: How is the tour going so far?
TOWNSEND: Fun! Yeah, itís been a lot of fun, dude. Thereís been a lot of new people to meet, and a lot of cool things going on.

KNAC.COM: Itís a pretty diverse lineup. I spoke with Gene recently, and he mentioned that he was pretty pumped up for this.
TOWNSEND: Heís got a right to be, man. Heís Gene Hoglan! Heís the man.

KNAC.COM: How did the Progpower fest in Atlanta go that you played with your solo band?
TOWNSEND: Dude, people hated me. Yeah, thatís cool. It was our second show. We just went down there and did our best. I had just finished two records. I think we did well. Weíre a young band, but we did well.

"Sometimes I donít want to do Strapping Young Lad at all. Sometimes I fucking hate it. I hate it! It makes me feel violated, and other times itís just the best thing in the world."
KNAC.COM: I had to ask because I never took you for ďProg RockĒ.
TOWNSEND: It depends on what your definition of Prog is. If it just means doing something progressive or progressing, then I think I am a lot more so than a lot of these other bands that just sound more like other Prog bands. Itís not really progressing. Itís just being in the category of one thing that progressed. Itís kind of inert Progressive.

KNAC.COM: So whatís next after this tour with Strapping Young Lad?
TOWNSEND: We go to Europe with the Devin Townsend Band and Strapping Young Lad playing together. Then we go out in America with Meshuggah. Yeah, itís in April.

KNAC.COM: Have you played with Meshuggah previously?
TOWNSEND: No, Iím really looking forward to it.

KNAC.COM: It should be cool and also bring a lot of people to see you guys.
TOWNSEND: Yeah, absolutely.

KNAC.COM: I got the new album just in time to get acquainted with it before talking to you. Itís a great album, man.
TOWNSEND: Thanks, dude. Itís got some good people on it. It was bound to be good. Gene, me, Jed, and Byron putting our efforts into itÖ

KNAC.COM: I heard it was a lot more democraticÖ
TOWNSEND: Oh, totally. Absolutely. We put it together as a band. We wrote it as a band. It was a new idea.

KNAC.COM: Iím sure that was a lot of pressure taken off your shoulders.
TOWNSEND: Yeah, actually. It gave me more of a chance to focus on being a singer, making noises, and different stuff. It was fun. I liked that.

KNAC.COM: Iíve heard that this albumís catalyst was the attacks on 9/11Ö
TOWNSEND: I guess. Itís not about it. Itís just more how I feel now that itís happened. Everythingís different now.

KNAC.COM: Itís almost surreal. I could see how that would make you want to create something as angry as ďSYLĒ.
TOWNSEND: Yeah. Itís crazy, but I think as a result of that we have a cool job to provide the vibes coming out and being the best we can beÖ.doing weird shit, but being together and talking our problems out without letting petty shit get in the way. Itís important, you know. I think it puts us in a category thatís kind of unique.

"[Jedís] right hand sounds like Ride the Lightning. I can play it all, of course, but he has that feel. Heís the king of it. Heís the right hand master."
KNAC.COM: There are parts on the album that have more of a Death/Black Metal kind of feelÖ
TOWNSEND: Right on. Death Metal, Black Metal, Thrash Metal, all of it, man. Itís just Metal. I still listen to it, all that stuff. You know between my last one, Terria, and these two, Strapping Young Lad and the Devin Townsend Band which is coming out in April, I just liked that power behind it. Itís cool.

KNAC.COM: What are some of the bands that you listened to in that period?
TOWNSEND: I listened to lots of stuff. I listened to a band called Myrkskog, Immortal, Emperor, but I also like Disassociate, the real grind like Napalm Death, Carcass, some of the older Vader stuff, Dark Angel, and Slayer. I try to mix that with Judas Priest and WASP. It took a bit of the chaotic thing that was going on with the last one out because thatís not really who we are anymore. That was just me at the time with a new sampler. Now itís like when you listen to music, itís like just play metal. Letís have guitars, bass, and keyboards but not as much the mechanical shit. It may happen in the future that we use that more, but not for this record.

KNAC.COM: ďSYLĒ seems a bit more focused.
TOWNSEND: Yeah it really is, actually. We took a lot more time to write it.

KNAC.COM: What were the rehearsal sessions like?
TOWNSEND: We would all just be writing at home and thinking about the songs at home. Weíd just go everyday except the weekends, four or five hours and pound through it, hang out and drink some Coors Light with whoever was there. It really was fun.

KNAC.COM: Itís great you guys can get together like thatÖ
TOWNSEND: Especially after so long. Finally, itís like, ok, letís do it.

KNAC.COM: What was Century Mediaís reaction when after all this time you said you had this back together?
TOWNSEND: Surprised. Thatís cool. Sell the record, man! You canít really be held accountable for decisions you make regarding your heart because it changes so often. Sometimes I donít want to do Strapping Young Lad at all. Sometimes I fucking hate it. I hate it! It makes me feel violated, and other times itís just the best thing in the world. You know what I mean? Itís like usually you get interviewed in both those timesÖ

KNAC.COM: Am I at a good time right now?
TOWNSEND: Oh yeah, itís totally good. A couple weeks ago, it really wasnít and I said I donít want to do it anymore.

KNAC.COM: A lot of people donít understand, though, that musically and creatively you canít just turn it on and off.
TOWNSEND: Yeah, exactly! Thatís why it took six years for another record to come out. It just wasnít time. I had to do Infinity, Terria, Physicist, and Ocean Machine. Then I decided Iíd do another Strapping Young Lad album. The best way to do another Strapping Young Lad would be: A) to do it in tandem with another solo record, and B) to make a band out of it. That way you can delegate a lot of that shit, and you can focus on being your part, singer, guitar player. Jed recorded all the guitars on ďSYLĒ. I made the noises and the ambient shit. Jedís 39. Heís been playing Slayer since they came out. His right hand sounds like ďRide the LightningĒ. I can play it all, of course, but he has that feel. Heís the king of it. Heís the right hand master. Part of the project is to make it as best as it can be, and Jedís the man.

KNAC.COM: When did you start playing a Strat?

KNAC.COM: Yeah, you can hear the Strat in itÖ
TOWNSEND: On the new record, the Devin Townsend Band, itís all Strat except itís a new Strat. Itís got a Pearly Gate pick up in it. Yeah, and thereís a five minute long guitar solo in there. It was one take too. But yeah, itís all Strat in the DT Band, which is the other thing. Itís a whole different group of guys. The record comes out April 1st. Itís the opposite of Strapping Young Lad. Itís really coolÖ

KNAC.COM: And thatís through your label, Hevy Devy Records?
TOWNSEND: And Inside Out.

KNAC.COM: How would you describe that material?
TOWNSEND: Itís like Ocean Machine. Itís like the first four songs on Ocean Machine, how theyíre sort of Pop-ishÖ

TOWNSEND: Yeah, nine of those. Itís like a good Hard Rock record. Itís really cool. Itís really emotional too. Itís got some really cool sentiments on it, probably the most emotional Iíve done actually. Itís still in that catchy format.

"[Metal is] awesome, itís super-powerful and emotional, but at the end of the day weíre dudes with long hair and guitars going, 'RAAAAAR!'"
KNAC.COM: Iíve always heard that out of everything youíve done, you hold Infinity dearest.
TOWNSEND: Infinity and Terria, and the Devin Townsend Band. No, I think Infinity and Terria are still the onesÖ

KNAC.COM: Physicist really grew on meÖ
TOWNSEND: I like them all, man. It all depends. A lot of people who have heard the Devin Townsend Band think itís the best. Itís a lot easier to hear. You donít have to devote everything to it. You can if you want. Thatís still there, but it doesnít demand it because itís based around this cool Rock. Itís not super-layered like Infinity. Thereís layers, but itís a lot more like Ocean Machine layers where itís kind of subtle. The production is really good. Itís probably the best Iíve done.

KNAC.COM: I always find it enjoyable when it is subtle, when itís the 15th time youíve heard the album and you are still picking out new chords or passages you never heard.
TOWNSEND: Exactly. Thatís the Devin Townsend Band. Itís really emotional, spiritual music.

KNAC.COM: What were some of your inspirations going into that?
TOWNSEND: Just the relationship with my wife, the relationship with my family, the things I feel when Iím on the road, people I meet when Iím on the road, all that stuff, all those emotions, all those real ones. Thatís what itís about. Strapping Young Lad is really guarded, and itís got this sort of faÁade of Heavy Metal around it which makes it a cool thing to watch because itís a performance. With the Devin Townsend Band, itís just me talking about me. Thatís what the record is, and I tried to make it easy for people to understand. With the next record Iím going to do, itís going to be like Infinity and really freaky. For the Devin Townsend Band, I just wanted to sort of take a break and just write some cool stuff. The reason I can get away with it and not have to redefine myself like Terria did is because I did Strapping Young Lad at the same time so thereís two.

KNAC.COM: Thatís cool, though. Itís excitingÖ
TOWNSEND: Yeah, it really is. Itís like either way itís good. The purist will always think the new record is not as good as the one before. Every record is not as good as the one before, but thatís the trend. Itís like it takes a year. By the end of the year, itís like they kind of get it.

KNAC.COM: It has to grow on themÖ
TOWNSEND: Yeah, thatís the thing, but the Devin Townsend Band is the first thing thatís proably not as much like that. It doesnít really have to grow on you because you can listen to it and go, ďoh, thatís a cool melodyĒ. Itís kind of like there you go.

KNAC.COM: How do you delegate your ideas between solo material and Strapping Young Lad?
TOWNSEND: I think itís just you know it as soon as you start it. Sometimes I tend to write in blocks. I get a theme and Iíll just write until the theme is used up. If I have five songs, then it never really gets reused. If I have ten songs, then it becomes an album. After a while, just constantly writing whenever I feel like it, thereís tons of ideas floating around. Itís just a matter of putting enough energy into the execution of it to make it valid so itís not just like a slight of hand thing.

KNAC.COM: It goes without saying that thereís a high level of perfectionism within your music. When can you sit back and say, ďOk, thatís it, this is doneĒ?
TOWNSEND: I think I have a vision of it from the beginning. By the end of it, itís just a matter of making it sound like itís supposed to sound in my head. You kind of know. Itís like, ďok, thatís done.Ē To add anymore would just be stupid.

KNAC.COM: You also do a lot of recording. I know you just did Lamb of God and Soilwork. How did you get into recording other bands?
TOWNSEND: They just ended up calling me. I never really sought it out. Soilwork was the first one to say, ďWould you like to try it?Ē Itís like, ďYeah, Iíll give it a shot. Sure.Ē And Iím a good worker too. As a result of that, I managed to have a thing for it. Itís cool. I like it, but itís other peopleís shit. So I end up spending two months on other peopleís shit when I could be spending it on my shit.

KNAC.COM: Thatís got to be aggravatingÖ
TOWNSEND: It is especially when itís like you get good or bad press as a result of it. I think eventually Iíll probably end up being a producer, but right now Iíve got so much music in me that itís a side-line.

KNAC.COM: What are your thoughts about Jason Newsted releasing some of the stuff that you recorded with him?
TOWNSEND: Fucking full Metal, man! I saw him in San Francisco. He seemed much better.

KNAC.COM: Do you ever catch Voivod up there?
TOWNSEND: No, but they were there too. It was kind of a blast to see those guys.

KNAC.COM: Do you ever think Metal just takes itself far too seriously?
TOWNSEND: Oh God, yeah! Almost always! Itís stupid. Itís fucking Metal. I mean, itís awesome, itís super-powerful and emotional, but at the end of the day weíre dudes with long hair and guitars going, ďRAAAAAR!Ē

KNAC.COM: How do you maintain that tongue-in-cheek element?
TOWNSEND: By considering it irony rather than stupidity. Then itís like youíre actually getting a point across through being an actor. Other than that, I just couldnít be in just a ďbandĒ. I couldnít sing for a band that took themselves seriously. I mean, we take ourselves far too seriously. I mean, weíre in our 30s, man.

"If youíre in a Metal band, you should sound like Gene Hoglan!"
KNAC.COM: How do you manage to avoid the Metal clichťs?
TOWNSEND: I donít think I do. I think I thrive on themÖ.

KNAC.COM: ďFar Beyond MetalĒ???
TOWNSEND: Yeah, totally! Metal has a formula. Thatís what the new Strapping Young Lad is about. What type of vocals do you put on Heavy Metal? To me, I love Death Metal, Grindcore, and Black Metal, all those bandsí types of vocal styles. To me, Heavy Metal is Rob Halford, Iron MaidenÖ

KNAC.COM: I can definitely hear that influence in some of the screams on the new recordÖ
TOWNSEND: Yeah, totally. The guitars I thought always should sound like ďRide the LightningĒ. The drums should sound like Gene Hoglan. If youíre in a Metal band, you should sound like Gene Hoglan!

KNAC.COM: His drums sound a lot more organic on this one.
TOWNSEND: Yeah, I agree. They do. I mean it was just a performance. Byronís got a really great bass sound which is great for Metal.

KNAC.COM: Through all of this, playing with Steve Vai and everything, what was the turning point that made you say, ďI want to do all this on my ownĒ?
TOWNSEND: When I came back from a two month tour of Europe with Aerosmith, I had to get a job washing dishes at an Italian restaurant at a mall up the street from my house. There had to be a better way. Other people can do this, so can I.

KNAC.COM: On a side-note, Iím going to be starting my own column for KNAC.com thatís going to deal with bands people should take note of. I was thinking of calling it, ďFar Beyond MetalĒ. Is that all right by you?
TOWNSEND: Oh awesome! Awesome! Itís an honor. Thank you. That would help us, man. The more times our name or our song titles are heard, people are going to be like, ďOh, thatís StrappingĒ. Eventually, Strapping Young Lad is everywhere!

(Photos by Chris Hawkins)

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