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interview: Devin Townsend

By Anthony Garone

Finding comfort in both order and chaos in music and creativity.

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Other Interviews

Looking for the interview segment about Devin’s 2019 release, Empath? Here it is! Or the interview segment about his new signature acoustic guitar, Steve Vai, X-JAMM, and more? Here it is!

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Interview Transcript

AG: Devin Townsend is an artist based in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada and I am really honored to be here because you are the most requested person to be interviewed on the site and it’s so cool to finally be with you after listening to your music for probably 20 years. So thanks a lot for joining us.

DT: Thanks man, it’s nice to be here. I appreciate being invited onto this, actually.

AG: Awesome.

DT: Yeah.

AG: I appreciate it. So, for people who might be new to you, can you give a brief introduction to yourself and the kind of music you produce?

DT: Sure. My name’s Devin Townsend. I’m a 46-year-old Canadian musician. I guess my bread and butter has been hard rock and progressive heavy metal. I’ve got maybe about 30 records now through certain bands. I had Strapping Young Lad when I was younger, which was really heavy, and Devin Townsend Project had a whole gaggle of solo records of different styles and aesthetics. I’ve worked with a lot of people. My first thing was with Steve Vai in 1993 and I’ve worked with a lot of people since then. I’ve done a lot of productions for bands in varying degrees of success and I’ve toured and played for years.

AG: Everywhere, right?

DT: Pretty much. Some places more than others. But it’s been a long and confusing career and I am happy.

AG: That’s awesome. So, even on your website you talk about how you have HevyDevy Records because you “make weird music.”

DT: Yeah.

AG: And you needed a place to release it. Those are your exact words. Can you talk a little about what makes you feel like your music is unique or different and why you might need a vehicle for you to release it on your own?

DT: The record label started inadvertently as I couldn’t convince the labels at the time that what I was doing was viable commercially, for one, but also for the level of capital I would need to pull off. So, because the Steve Vai record had done well in Japan, Sony Japan suggested that if I just incorporate a name of whatever the name was, it dubiously ended up being HevyDevy Records, then they would license the work. That’s how it started.

When I put together Strapping Young Lad and that ended up on the label Century Media, if I could make any claim to business acumen, it was that I insisted that the only thing they had rights to was Strapping. Then, everything else that I did, whether or not it was ambient or country or rock or orchestral—anything., I would have the rights to do that on HevyDevy records.

Why do I think it’s weird? I don’t think it’s weird, I just think I’m told it’s weird, so I just preface most conversations with preemptively telling people that “you may not dig this” or “people are typically confused about this” or what have you. But I think for me, it’s musically I don’t think about what I do, I guess. I’ve never really thought about it.

I go by what I’m compelled to do and those compulsions tend to be very vision-based and super specific. So, I’ll do things because that year seems to have certain aesthetics that play into it, like I’m interested in green and I’m interested in this particular font. I’m interested in this particular sound and this frequency and a particular guitar sound, which leads me to another guitar pickup and then by the end of the year, all of these subliminal clues tend to triangulate to the point where there’s a really specific vibe that a name typically happens in the formative stages of those clues coming together.

By the end, I’m like, “Oh, I guess it’s Ki.” “Oh, I guess it’s Ziltoid.” “Oh, I guess it’s Empath.” And I’m sometimes like, “Oh that’s weird.” But I knew it had to be that way, I know it has to sound that way, but I’d be first in line to suggest that it’s strange.

AG: One of the main reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of this book. You wrote a book on creativity. Can you give a little background on the book?

DT: I think part of the process that I have been working towards my own ability to actualize ideas is: how do you refine your creative spirit to the point where what your intention is is unclouded by any of the crap that you’ve put into your body or you ingest with media or other people’s music or whatever? That requires a lot of exploration, whether or not that means I’m a vegetarian. I’m a vegetarian for years and I’m like, “Well, why am I a vegetarian? Eat meat and figure it out.” Then I eat meat and it makes me feel the way that it did and then I’m vegetarian again.

But it’s like I think that on a creative level a lot of what prevents me from being just a pure channel to what it is emotionally I’m trying to represent is my sense of self or my insecurities or my ego or whatever. I think that writing the book ultimately was an extension of being afraid of giving things away, whether or not it’s my guitar sound or my production process or what it is that I—what my reasons are personally, spiritually, whatever. I think I held on to those things for a long time because my insecurity is like, “Well, if other people know how I do what I do, then they’re going to be able to do it and I’m going to be out of a job and I’ll go broke and and…” Whatever.

So, I think a couple years ago when the suggestion to come up with the book on creativity came up around, there was a part of me that felt that if I was really forthcoming with the process, then there’s a certain part of the burden of protecting that, that you can forget it all. Like, “Here’s my guitar sounds.” “Here’s how I produce my vocals.” “Here’s how I do it all.” And then through it, I think what I recognized is that what makes what I do unique is the same thing that would make what you do unique or what you do unique or what anybody does unique.

It’s got very little to do with your process and more to do with how that process interprets your trip, which no one else is going to be able to articulate. So more people that have it, the better music I think ultimately will become.

AG: There are a few interesting themes in your book. One I want to talk about is you talk quite a bit about the subconscious and you’re kind of discovering something that’s already there. And you almost make it sound like “it just happened to me. I didn’t make it. This is already there.” And even the terminology you use is often work-related in terms of perhaps an archaeological dig or you’re massaging something. I was curious if you think—why are there so many references to old things? What are you digging up? What are you excavating? What are you trying to bring to light? Is that stuff that’s been there your whole life? Did it already exist? Where are you coming from with that?

DT: Well that has nothing to do with me. I think it has nothing to do with any artist. I’m often critical in the sense of artists who claim that the work that they do is anything other than just trying to do an accurate version of the manpower to honor the source than it has anything to do with you.

As a person, I think I’m lost and simple. So, I can only hope that the moments that I’ve had in my life of spiritual significance—no religion, but spiritual significance—are such where I’m like, “Well, that’s the only thing that I want to represent. That’s the only thing I want to sing about. That’s the only thing I want to get right.” But it’s not that my version of that is, by any stretch of the imagination, “the version” of it. It’s just middle class white Canadian male named Devin. You have a glimpse of these things, as we all do, artistically and we’re like, “Oh, that. Well, through my filter and through my biases and my fears and my hangups and the fact that I liked Judas Priest when I was a kid, or Enya, or any of these things,” it’s that that comes through.

And it is ancient. That’s primordial and I think that improvisation and artists who strive to represent these things with reverence, you have to be proactive in calling yourself out on your own bullshit. I think that for me, my reasons for doing that are not because if I do that, I’ll become more successful or I’ll become famous or what have you, it’s just that it seems like the source and those sorts of fundamental human experiences are worthy of that sort of self analysis.

AG: Do you feel like you just trip over it? You trip over it and it just happens to you?

DT: Holy crap, yeah. Not only that, but I don’t understand it until I’m on it, so I often fear it, which is super counter-productive to the process.

AG: What specifically do you fear?

DT: I fear that I’m not capable of handling it. Right? I feel like unless I keep my attention rooted in something that’s fundamentally productive and fundamentally helpful, as opposed to destructive, then it’s going to be skewed and it’s going to be colored by my own ego in a way that misrepresents something that is larger than us.

I struggle with insecurity because I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t claim to be particularly adept at any aspect of what I do. The things that I like in life, you know like my family and I like food and I like sex. You know, the fundamental parts of life are all that I really feel that I can enjoy and there is a passion that is just so rooted in fear that the process becomes, “Okay well face your fears” on some level. If it’s vegetarianism or if it’s sex or if it’s peering into the void or if it’s any of these things, it’s…

In the past, I had experimented with a lack of accountability with writing as part of the process of trying to actualize my own connection to creativity. I thought, “Well, maybe that’s an avenue to explore.” So this record, “Alien,” and “Infinity” and these things were all based in me going, “Well, I don’t care how people perceive this.” But then through that is a real sense of, “Well, it’s all connected.” Like, everybody’s interconnectedness is part and parcel of how you approach this. Your awareness of where your throw extends will ultimately affect how ably you are to articulate this stuff.

I struggle with it because it’s such a compulsion. It’s not like, “Oh I’ve got a good idea. I’ll write a record like this.” It’s just all signs start pointing to certain things, like Empath, this new project. Years ago, I was like, “Okay, well it’s got something to do with covers of those old new age things with the whales underneath and the universe up on the top and the font is something like Star Trek.” You know what I mean? It’s like all these things, the pieces start to fall into place and then by the end of it, I think I’ve recognized in the past by going down avenues that were in hindsight rooted in arrogance or selfishness that I thought that led me to that place, which was horrible for me.

I don’t want to represent that. It’s much to the chagrin who had something invested in that. Like people in bands that I was with, we were just on the cusp of success or what have you. The last band, The Devin Townsend Project, I was so afraid of the dark that is part of being human that I refused to acknowledge that it was a big part of what balances my creativity. As a result, that band started getting this reputation of being like, “Oh it’s a positive thing.” Then people would come to me like I had answers to some degree, like, “Oh, you know what to—“ You know? “Because you’re saying it, everything’s going to be okay.” I’m like, “But it isn’t!” You know?

Then all of a sudden, I started looking down the trajectory of what that would become because the next stage for DTP was more success and more success. I’m like, “My God, I’m going to end up representing something that I’m not qualified to represent. I don’t have the fucking answers. Not even slightly.” And not only that, there seems to be very clearly a market for not only telling people, “Fuck the world” because to be able to rationalize that with a cool logo, there’s a lot of people that are willing to pay for that because it removes that need to say, “No, don’t fuck the world.”

And conversely, saying “Everything’s going to be fine.” There’s a huge market for that because everything’s not, clearly, okay. People want that sort of reassurance and to have it as a slogan on a shirt, all these things, and so I started recognizing, I’m like, “Well again, your fear is preventing you from representing your truth. Your truth. Not the truth. Your truth. My truth is somewhere in the middle, as it should be. My truth is: everything’s clearly not alright, but I firmly believe that if you’re willing to work and recognize that even though there’s darkness everywhere, it’s up to us to find the joy in that.

Even with the awareness of that, not blocking out the awareness that it is fundamentally chaos, with a certain type of internal discipline I think you can transmute that into something that is healthy and enjoyable. I’d like to be a step in the latter as opposed to the other. You know?

AG: There are themes in the book, and we were discussing before filming, this notion of via negativa where you are cutting away at things instead of building something up. You use via negativa in a few ways. When you are talking about things not working out in the world, are you using your art to chip away at that? Or are you using art to shine a light on that?

DT: Certainly not intentionally. That’s where sometimes I feel like the imposter syndrome on some level because if you get it right, or at least I feel if I get it right artistically, in hindsight it looks intentional. But it wasn’t. It was all based in just staring into the darkness. Take these things that present themselves purely as an interest and then just have them not irritate me anymore. When I have a piece of music come into my head, it’s finished when it doesn’t bug me. It’s not that it’s—when I start a piece of music, it’s not like the intention of this is going to be for this and that and this is how it’s going to help and this is how it’s going to—it’s got nothing to do with that and I think that’s why I spend so much time being self-deprecating as well because I’ll have these ideas that seem to be of a lot of depth and importance to me and my trip, yet I don’t understand them until they’re done.

AG: Can you give an example of something you didn’t understand until it was done.

DT: All of it. All of it.

AG: Something a little more tangible?

DT: Yeah. Empath. It’s taken me a year and a half to write it and I consciously went into writing heavy music again for this one, but juxtaposed by very mellow music. It’s the first time I’ve done it in one place. The fear of doing that for fear of people interpreting that or the ups and downs of it, psychologically being disturbing to people was such that I couldn’t trust that my intentions for it were not self-destructive. You know? On some level I was trying to sabotage myself because of the self-loathing or whatever that on some—because I don’t feel like… It’s not like I’m not in control of it, but because of the peripherals are so close, I don’t see it as it’s going. I was like, “Oh my God, what am I doing? What am I doing? What am I doing? This is terrible. This is terrible. This is terrible. It’s great. It’s great. It’s great. This is terrible. It’s terrible. It’s terrible.” But then once it was done and I listened to it, I’m like, “Oh it’s beautiful!” Like your intentions all along were to represent that life is not one thing. Life is all these things. And the last piece of music from the record, the last line is, “If you can’t shine for you, please shine for me.” It’s like, through the storm of the record, what was kind of guiding my hand like an infant was this sense that if you really want to contribute to music, to other people, other people’s art and other people’s frames of mind in a very destructive time, you can’t be oblivious to the fear. You can’t block it out under the assumption that it will simply go away. You have to face it. So by the end of the record, when I finally concluded that I was able to listen to it and say, “This is a positive statement.” It’s a very uneasy time and therefore, as somebody who’s empathetic to what’s going on just in his immediate environment, let alone the media and all the shit we’re bombarded with, of course it’s going to come out like that. Of course it’s going to come out like that. Unless you’re being dishonest, of course it’s going to come out like that. And your fear of other people interpreting it in the wrong way is based on the fact that you’re not a terrible person.

AG: It’s interesting how you view—it seems like you live with this juxtaposition of order and chaos. An album is essentially order. The recording is ordered, everyone’s recorded, the mix is perfect, the master is perfect, but you’re pointing and saying, “There’s still the chaos.” You’re saying, “I don’t know what happens, I don’t know why this happens.” But you have a 5-step guide to creativity, you know?

DT: I think the 5-step guide is based on very pragmatic, almost parental, advice because any advice that I have to people to—“wield” sounds too pompous, but to “handle” this type of process, is like—you know, “Don’t do drugs and stay in school!” You know? It’s really a lot more about when these moments of darkness and existential trauma comes into your life, it’s about practicing real fundamental parts of being a decent person so that your heart is bigger than your fear.

AG: Do you feel that you’ve worked through a lot of this with your art? Do you feel like you’re a much healthier person of who you were, or do you feel like you have different issues?

DT: Different issues! I want to be healthy, for sure. I think that I’ve made a lot of inroads in my personal life where I couldn’t have gone into very self-destructive. For example, drugs are a very tender subject because a lot of the times the inspiration you get from cannabis or alcohol or LSD or ayahuasca or any of these things are such that it’s really enticing because you think on some level it removes fear and you’re able to just produce. However there’s a certain aspect of that that it feels like you’re taking it out of the bank. You know? You make a withdrawal that allows you to get a riff or something like this, but you pay for it in a psychological type of chaos that I think disallows you from being able to handle the ramifications of what it is that you’re producing. So, it’s a very fine line. I think that extends to coffee and exercise and all these things, but you’ve gotta live too. It’s not like you can be a monk in this world. If you’ve got kids and if you’ve got a job and you’ve got phones and you’ve got—you’re recycling, yet you’re drinking out of plastic bottles. All these things. I think what that comes down to in the same way, maybe some artistic avenues can lead you to dark places, I think the idea you’ve withdrawn everything from and being completely like, “I’m a pure vessel,” is also a type of hangup and I think what you’ve really got to do is foster some sort of sense of self-love that is rooted in, “Just give me a fucking break, man. Eat a piece of chocolate, dude.” You know what I mean? I think that that ultimately plays into the book as well because what works for one person is not going to work for everybody else. There’s some people I know that can do drugs all the time. Or drink alcohol. Or do any number of things that may not work for other people.

AG: It may not be working for them, either. You just think it does watching them.

DT: Maybe, but I think that maybe it predisposes that there’s “one way.” I’m not sure that I subscribe to that. I think that there’s one way ultimately, but I think that there’s very much the idea that everybody has a certain level of evolution and then, for example, I could remove everything from my life. I can become a monk and I can do all these things that seem to be enticing. I just don’t know if I’m spiritually evolved enough for that to not be a waste of my life.

AG: After seeing some of your performances, I’m not sure you’d be authentic to yourself.

DT: That’s just it! The whole purpose of the guide to creativity, if there is such a thing, is that you’ve gotta figure out who you are and what your parameters are and then honor that, but don’t lie to yourself about it. Sometimes the best thing that you may be able to do for yourself is have a glass of wine and watch Netflix for two days. You know? Maybe it isn’t. Maybe for somebody else, that would be super destructive. But I’m pretty far from enlightenment.

AG: You say the first step is to figure out who you are. Would you say that these things you’re describing about yourself is what you’ve figured out about who you are or are they kind of something else?

DT: I’ve figured them out only because I’ve been so afraid of life. In trying to not be perpetually immobilized by fear, these things have kind of revealed themselves to me as opposed to any sort of benevolent, like, “I think that my role in life is to…” I’m shit scared all the time.

AG: Is the music a vehicle to process that? Or is it a way of blocking it out for you?

DT: Music started as a loophole for me because we were raised in an environment where overt displays of emotion were viewed as distasteful, I think. I think that the downfall of that within my family is there’s a lot of people who have not a very highly evolved empathic, but moderate. And I’m in that category, so you can’t feel the need to understand emotions or to represent emotions with such primal ferocity without a loophole for it to come out if you’re in an environment where it’s not cultivated or else you’re going to go fucking crazy. For me, because music—I’ve always been, I guess synesthesic.

AG: The neuroscientist would know.

DT: I mean, numbers and colors and shapes and sounds and emotions are really connected, right? As a result of that, it could have been music, it could have been art. It didn’t really matter. Music was just a loophole. Because I was in a musical family, I could represent those sort of repressed things in a way that wasn’t going to get me in trouble and then when I found that it became a convenient place for me to put it, everything kind of got hardwired to that. And so now as I find myself, and this one could argue that I’m learning these lessons that I’ve imposed on myself are helping, or I’m just getting older. But music and its importance to me in terms of my identity is much less than it was. So now I find that, for example on Empath, a lot of the theme ended up again at the end being recognized as: what you’re trying to do is let these things come and not let them define you. Let them bubble to the surface and then let them go.

AG: Which is something you cover in the book where you say, “Don’t spiritualize or idolize the idea. Just commoditize it and record it, have a system for storing it, and you’ll get back to it later.” It’s not like, “Oh crap, if I don’t work on this, my life will fall apart.”

DT: So if I can add a caveat to that: if you want to. I think as soon as you say you don’t or one method is or “this is how you do it,” I think it verges on the same problem I have with religion where it predisposes that whoever’s telling you these things knows. I will be the first to say, “I don’t know and what I thought I knew tends to morph from year to year.” When I was experimenting with eating meat again, I had all these people in my life that were hardcore vegan and they were hyper-critical of me. I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t know. I’ve been vegetarian for so long, I don’t even know why I’m vegetarian. I just need to know.” It was like, “Well you can’t.” I’m like, “But why? It just seems stupid.” And I mean, the truth is somewhere in the middle for me. I realize that by allowing myself the lack of judgment that goes into saying, “If you choose to try something, that makes you a terrible person. You’re going to hell.” Or whatever it is. I find that’s been really helpful creatively.

AG: This book is kind of all about that, like this notion of everyone has their own truth and popular society may not be interested in yours. But if pleasure and artistic expression is the goal, you’re going to have to get over that.

DT: Yeah. Yeah. I think it really comes down to: just be honest with yourself and it doesn’t matter if what you want is something that isn’t “right” to want. Maybe all you want to do is make a ton of money, but if that’s what’s going to make you happy, then you’d be foolish not to pursue that because maybe somewhere along the line you’ll find that in the path of that is what you needed to know. It’s like, “Oh, that isn’t going to make me happy. But I didn’t know it was not going to make me happy until I went there.” I think that it’s like Bart Simpson testing the electric muffin. He’s like, “Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.” I feel like to a certain extent, my process is like “I just need to try it to know.”

AG: Well now that you’re a millionaire, you know if that money isn’t that important to you.

DT: I’m a “thousandaire.”

AG: Right on. Me too.

DT: I mean, I think money is a pain in the ass. I would love to have enough money to never have to say “no” to the guacamole, as they say. I know a bunch of people who have millions of people and they just seem like they have so many problems. I feel like I’ve got, in a lot of ways, more than I need.

AG: I heard a great saying the other day. It’s a Chinese proverb/adage type thing. “No food, one problem. Lots of food, many problems.”

DT: That makes sense. That makes sense. But I think, again, I think where the problems come there is thinking, “Well that’s what you have to do, then. So I’m going to get rid of everything and I’m going to get a white cloak and I’m going to tell my family that I’m the Buddha and I’m going to go off and…” But if you’re not spiritually in that place, all you’re doing is fucking yourself and everybody else that you care about. I think that’s a really important thing because during Infinity, I went down that path where I was like, “I’m going to get rid of everything and I’m going to go be a monk.”

AG: Is that why you’re naked on the cover?

DT: Totally. But it’s like, “But I’m not evolved enough for that.” It’s like I’m kind of stuck in the western view of what spirituality is to the point where I think there’s a way that you do it. You know? If I got more than one guitar, then I’m spiritually unevolved and I find that a lot of my problems with spiritualism or religion, but spiritualism in general, is people thinking that–for example, I know a lot of people who are vegetarian because that’s what spiritual people do. But then I know a lot of people that seem really spiritually evolved that eat meat. You know? So when you feel like you just have to have the uniform for what’s going to–you’re going to transcend the birth and death cycle, you’re going to go to heaven, whatever it is. You think, “Well as long as I’ve got these things, I say ‘namaste’ a lot and I do a lot of yoga and I still talk shit about my buddies when they’re not around.” I think ultimately, it’s like, “Man you’re wasting your time. Just figure out what you want to do. Burn around in a race car and eat ribs. If this is your one time around, then maybe that’s what you should be doing.” As opposed to just being frustrated with everything. Now, I think the other side of the coin now is the further down you go, certain things just don’t make sense anymore. Like for me, I love meat, but after a while it’s like, “Well that just doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons.” But I needed to know that.

AG: I like Robert Fripp’s way. He has a couple of ways of thinking about this. First he says that Tai Chi shows the perfect form exists and it’s your job to align with that form. Whatever that form is, may be different for different people, but we need to build the discipline to be able to take that form. And then he calls King Crimson “a way of doing things.” And I always thought, “That is so irritating. What does that mean?” But just like you’re saying, it’s like, “This is how I process what I need to do. This is my way of doing things.”

DT: I thought you were going to say, “Just like what you’re saying is irritating.” [Laughs.]

AG: Yeah, can we move on?

DT: Yeah, I’ll choke now. No, I get it, man. I think it’s like–I like my friends, I like my family, I don’t claim to know a lot, I like laughing, I like eating. I don’t know. I don’t know. And I know less every day. So I think that the creative thing frightens me just because I clearly do know.

AG: You do!

DT: And that’s the thing where there’s a disconnect.

AG: You can’t not know after 30 years of it, right?

DT: This is the problem! So because of the real disconnect between chaos and order that even exists within my creative mind, I constantly feel ill at ease about what I do and that prevents me from improvising in the way that I hope to one day. You know? I think that once I can make–and I think it comes down to insecurity. I spent so many years going, “Oh I’m an idiot. I don’t know.” You internalize that to the point where you clearly do know and it’s like, “Oh no I don’t.” [Inaudible.] “I don’t know.” Right? But maybe this whole mid-life thing, I mean 46 is pretty late to still be battling with this shit, but whatcha gonna do?

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