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The Whole Damn Circus: Peter Atkinson's Exclusive Conversation with Devin Townsend

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Friday, December 11, 2009 @ 9:35 AM

" I'd become something of a caricature because of the hair and being the 'crazy rock guy' and I had a way of sabotaging things when they started going good."

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Conventionality has never really been a part of Devin Townsend’s repertoire. From the time he first entered the public conscience as the vocalist on guitar whiz Steve Vai’s Sex & Religion album in 1993, through his work fronting aggro-merchants Strapping Young Lad and his various projects with the Devin Townsend Band, Ocean Machine and as a solo artist, Townsend consistently turned left when everyone else was turning right.

He’s made music in a wide variety of styles, from cataclysmic, futuristic metal to much more chill progressive, hard rock/pop and ambient endeavors. He bravely wore his signature skullet hairstyle and embraced a persona that was equals parts nerdy savant and Charles Manson bat-shit crazy — no doubt owing to his bipolar disorder. And he was contentious, even hostile, on stage as he grew weary of slack-jawed audiences that couldn’t quite seem to figure out his music.

Then, after participating in the 2006 Ozzfest in support of Strapping Young Lad’s last album The New Black, Townsend went into something of a self-imposed exile. He released a homemade rock opera/puppet show soundtrack, Ziltoid The Omniscient, then withdrew from the public eye completely. He cut off the skullet, quit drugs and alcohol, started a family and tried to figure out what the hell he was going to do with the rest of his life.

When he finally things sorted, Townsend had fresh ideas aplenty, enough to yield four wide-ranging albums being released under the Devin Townsend Project moniker that will challenge fans of his previous work and open the door to a whole new audience. The first, Ki, issued in late summer, has an ambient, electronic pulse. The newest, Addicted, released Nov. 17, is full of brash, infectious hard rock graced by the soaring vocal accompaniment of Anneke van Giersbergen, formerly of the Dutch band The Gathering. The project will conclude with the simultaneous release of the Jekyll & Hyde tandem of Deconstruction (loud and evil sounding) and Ghost (mellow and country-ish) in the spring.

In early 2010, Townsend will return to road for the first time in nearly four years, as his band — which will feature long-time cohorts bassist Brian Waddell and drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen — joins a prog-metal wank-fest headlined by Between The Buried and Me and featuring Cynic and instrumentalists Scale The Summit. And though his band will feature a relatively streamlined set — which will not include any Strapping Young Lad material — and line-up this time around, he envisions something much grander down the road. So who knows what the future will bring? And for Townsend, that's part of the fun.

On the phone from Vancouver, he offered the following.

KNAC.COM: I know you've got a lot of irons in fire, what are you up to at the moment? Or are you actually taking some kind of break for the holidays to relax - as much as you can relax?

TOWNSEND: (Laughs.) Relax? Most of the time I don't even know the meaning of that word. Right now I'm rehearsing five days a week, and trying to get the house in order on the other two days and trying to raise a toddler and trying to make some money and trying to get my guitar rig sounding good. The idea of vacation, that's actually the first time I've made mention of it in many a year. I'm going hard, man.

I'm don't actually live in the city of Vancouver, I live on an island, so I'm in town now. That's an interesting turn of events, but I'm digging it. The band, it sounds killer and I'm making sure that we get out there. It's not like an afterthought. I'm going to use this opportunity to present something that I've wanted to present for many years.

KNAC.COM: Since you're in the city now, are the Olympic preparations making life more difficult for Vancouverites?

TOWNSEND: Like anything, there's a faction of folks who think that it's the downfall of everything and there's another faction of folks who think you need to pave everything to make it happen and then another faction, in which I include myself, who doesn't really care either way. So the traffic's bad, when isn't it? And everybody's miserable and it's raining and it's cold and everybody's terrified of one thing or another, the sky is falling on our head or we've got the aardvark flu or something. Everybody has got their twat in a knot about something. And in terms of sports, is masturbating a sport? Because it's about the only one I have any affinity for.

KNAC.COM: Will you be doing hometown warm-up shows or anything like that, or are you jumping right out on the Between The Buried And Me tour?

TOWNSEND: Cannonball, man, you know what I'm saying. Jumping right in. It's an opening set, so it's like a half-hour. The pressure's not really on us, we just have to go out and play. The first show or two will have to propel themselves in terms of the energy and just being back out there, because I haven't toured in a couple years and we've only been playing together in rehearsal. But after that, we should get into a good groove.

We're planning a big show for Vancouver after we get back, and before we go to Australia, with a choir, just a real event. Vancouver's meant so much to me and I've got so many friends here that I want to make our first show here not like a throwaway, just another show, as much as a happening.

KNAC.COM: I guess being third on the bill on a club tour doesn't quite rate toting along choirs or a big production?

TOWNSEND: (Laughs) Definitely not. For one thing, it's not something we could realistically afford to do. This will be a pretty stripped-down, low-budget thing. For another, this is all about introducing people to the Devin Townsend Project, which is really a different beast than Strapping or the Devin Townsend Band. This is like starting again, for me, getting my feet wet. Here I am, I'm back, I'm healthy, I've got a good band and I'm at a very different place in my life and in my music. The old mask I was able to wear for all those years has come off.

I'm actually really looking forward to getting out there and playing for people, which is a quite a change the old days. The hardest thing right now is decided just what to play, because we'll probably have time for five or six songs and I'm trying to present an overview of my whole career, everything except for Strapping, really try to make it dynamic. With the albums I'm doing now, that's 50-60 songs right there, so you can see what we're up against.

KNAC.COM: Obviously you've got grander aspirations for your performances?

TOWNSEND: Absolutely. My goal is to eventually see this thing take on a Floydian scope. For now, it's just going to be the four of us on stage, and we'll have to play to tapes for certain songs because we won't have a keyboard player, which sucks, and there's some songs from Addicted that we'll have to omit because they specifically feature Anneke since it'll just be me on vocals, which also sucks. We have to redesign some of the songs because we just won't be able to do the layering that there is on the recordings. But that's cool. That's part of the challenge.

We're running a few men, and maybe women, short of our ultimate goal. If this all goes as well as I hope it will, and we're able to get a decent budget, you'll get choirs, dancers, elephants, the whole damn circus (laughs). Pink Floyd were four guys in the studio but they had like 14 people on stage when they played live. I want to make it that big, really go to town with it.

What I've realized after 20 years is that people want to be entertained, not antagonized, which was what playing live with Strapping was really all about. I remember very clearly doing a show in Atlanta with Testament and Stuck Mojo in 1997 and seeing how the crowd was just hating us, they just weren't getting us and they weren't going to try. So it was like, "OK, fuck you guys, we'll really give you a reason to hate us." For years, playing live was more about us going into an eight-minute guitar noodles and me insulting people and telling stupid jokes. Now, I'm choosing to do something the resonates.

KNAC.COM: Do you expect to do a tour with Anneke at some point?

TOWNSEND: I wish we could have done that now, with the album just being out, but we don't have the budget for it. But at some point, yes, I expect we'll do some shows together. Whether it will be a whole tour or not depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is the logistical challenge of her living like 6,000 miles away. But it would be a lot of fun to do these songs live, I think they turned out great on the album, considering how that all just sort of fell together.

KNAC.COM: How did it all fall together? Did you know her from before?

TOWNSEND: No, that was the weird thing. That was fate finally smiling on the Dev. We were on the same label when Strapping started and she was with The Gathering, and I knew her work, but I'd never met her. I wanted a female voice on Addicted, but nothing worked out and like two weeks before I started doing the vocals she sent me an e-mail asking if I'd be interested in working with her on something at some point. So I e-mailed her back to see if she could come to Canada a week later, that I was working on an album I'd love for to sing on. And the rest is history. Her performance is great, she was just what I was looking for.

KNAC.COM: You talked a little earlier about having this go as well as you hope it will. You've been around the block a few times and have had your share of disappointments. What happens if things don't go as well as you hope this time?

TOWNSEND: That's a really good question. I don't know. This experience so far, after getting back in the game, has been nothing but positive, the experience with Anneke just being one example, and I just can't help but have a positive outlook on this, which again is something new for me (laughs).

This is, honestly, the third or fourth time I've had a chance to take things to the next level. In the past, I suffered from classic failure syndrome. I was plagued by a lack of self-worth and I'd become something of a caricature because of the hair and being the "crazy rock guy" and I had a way of sabotaging things when they started going good. By the time Strapping finished up, I'd come to the conclusion that it was time to look at what was contributing to this ability of mine to keep jumping off the cliff and take steps to not let myself do that again. So I cut the hair, got myself sobered up, had a kid and kept telling myself to keep my eye on the prize.

It wasn't an easy metamorphosis. Weed and alcohol had become such a ritual in my creative process that when they were gone I had nothing for like two years. But when the ideas, the songs, finally started flowing again, they were coming from all over the place. However I was feeling on a certain day, that's the kind of music I would come up with, instead of forcing myself to write a certain way. Whatever was in my head, that's what I went with.

And what I've got with this project is four distinct stylistic approaches that is something I think is devastatingly, mind-bogglingly great. What I have to do is prove it as best as I can because this could be the last chance I have. But I've solved the problems that were holding me back for all those years. So it's time to get in shape, go out there and do this thing.

KNAC.COM: If the response to Addicted is any indication, you're off to a good start?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, it's flattering that after 20 years, people still pay attention - especially after all the reasons I've given them not to (laughs). All of these albums have an identity unto themselves, each of these records is an observation that chronicles personal change. Ki was more of an ambient thing that probably had the old SYL fans scratching their heads. Addicted is definitely the most accessible of the four albums. There's a lot of strong melodies on there and Anneke's vocals give it a more inviting feel, even though it rocks pretty hard. The next two are going to be totally different - and totally different from one another. Deconstruction is going to be ludicrously chaotic, a shitstorm of noise, and Ghost is going to be almost folksy, so of course it makes perfect sense to release them at the same time (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Since the material was all written before you started recording, would you have preferred to record and release it all at once, instead of these separate installments?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, if I had my druthers, the recording would all be done right now. It would have been nice to do it one cathartic purge, instead of working on songs about something that has already been resolved. So it's a little weird. But there are other things at play, like the fact that each album is being done with different musicians and there's touring and that sort of thing that made doing it everything all at once rather impractical. The important thing is to make it accurate, make it lucid, get it out there and then let's make a symphony (laughs).

KNAC.COM: So you've already got what comes next in mind?

TOWNSEND: Oh yeah. What I want to do in the future is demonstrate that I'm not a one-trick pony, so I'll be doing a second Ziltoid album, Ziltoid is something I can take anywhere, it's given me a real sense of freedom. It was something I created during my time with SYL as a reaction to the fact that no one liked our band and that people’s perceptions of me had made me like a puppet. Ziltoid became a projection for that character, and he literally is a puppet.

The first Ziltoid record was almost like a demo, it was something I did entirely on my own to prove that I could. This next record is going to be a full-blown musical with orchestras and choirs and all kinds of insanity.

I'm going to spoil the surprise, but when we play in Finland this summer we're going to steal a page from Dethklok and do a full Ziltoid stage show, have him up on a big screen while we play on stage. It will be me against Ziltoid in a battle royale, only he's going to have my hair this time. When I cut off the skullet, I put it in a box and saved it. Now he gets it.

KNAC.COM: That sounds hilarious. I guess Brendon Small (Dethklok mastermind) can't complain about you stealing an idea from him since he created a character in your image. What do you think about Pickles, and how was your experience doing voices on the show?

TOWNSEND: It was great. I think Brendon is a genius, he's an amazing talent, and I think Dethklok is incredible, both as a TV show and a live band. He's a fantastic guitar player and how can you go wrong with the mighty Gene Hoglan playing drums in your band? I think what he's doing is just fantastic and I'm glad to be some small part of.

When he first showed me the Pickles character, he had the same kind of hair that I did, the skullet, and I was a little freaked because it was so recognizable, so I asked him to change it. So he gave him the dreads, which when he does the comb-over thing looks even more ridiculous. Like I said, the guy's a genius, and that thing has become a genuine phenomenon, so he's obviously doing something right. More power to him.

KNAC.COM: You've said you won't be playing any SYL songs live during this run of touring, do you see yourself adding some of this songs in later on, or has Strapping totally been put to rest?

TOWNSEND: I really don't think so, for two reasons. For one, no matter how much I feel for the music, I shouldn't represent it as my own. I don't want to disrespect the spirit of the band that way, because even though it started with just me it became a sum of all of its parts. And I'm just not in that frame of mind anymore. SYL was always a caustic, violent explosion, it was a middle finger, and that's where I was. But I've resolved the issues that made those records so strong.

Strapping was different than other bands because it was never meant to have a 30-year career. It actually lasted longer than I ever thought it would, to the point where it ended up becoming a commodity, which is where a song like "U Suck" came from. The way I write is very cathartic, it's all about where I am in my life and I'm not there anymore. To have to do that now would be like a total poseur parody. And I fucking hate poseurs. The energy that is coming out of me now is much more positive.

KNAC.COM: I remember you talking about how 9/11 actually sparked you to continue SYL. I guess that would mean it would take something like a 2012 apocalypse to bring it back?

TOWNSEND: (laughs) Well, if the shit goes down like people think it will in 2012, none of us will be around to do it. The decision to carry on Strapping was a reaction to the fear and paranoia that followed 9/11, it certainly served as a justification for doing it. But since 9/11, I've had stuff in my personal life that was way scarier than that, like making sure you can buy diapers and baby food for a newborn and still have something left over to pay for the electricity. Having to be the provider, that will scare the shit out of anyone.

KNAC.COM: What do you think of Gene and Byron's participation in the whole Fear Factory soap opera?

TOWNSEND: Fear Factory was a huge influence on Strapping, Dino [Cazares] is such a sick guitar player and the way they were able to merge technology with metal was really quite groundbreaking. We were lucky enough to tour with them. So purely from a fan's perspective, I'm glad they're coming back and this really is a killer lineup. I've heard "Powershift" and I love it, I hope the rest of the record is that good.

But all the drama that's going on, I've got enough going on in my own life to worry about. Byron and Gene are big boys, I'm sure they know what they are getting themselves into. I just went to lunch with Byron a week ago and we really didn't talk about it because it's none of my business and the last thing they need from me is my advice. But do I like what they are doing? I love it.

KNAC.COM: Last question, since the holidays are upon us, and you've got a 3-year-old, what's the big Christmas gift this year?

TOWNSEND: That mommy and daddy don't fight (laughs). I don't know, a drill press? Something from Black & Decker? He'll appreciate that more when he's older than some fucking Elmo doll or whatever gotta-have thing people are stampeding over each other to get this year at the mega-mart. You're usually pretty safe at the hardware store.

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