Chaos and Order
Devin Townsend is a bit of a conundrum. After 30 albums and decades of producing music, he still says he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s written a book on creativity, which is the impetus for this interview.
This interview is broken into a few segments. The first one we’re releasing is about his new album, Empath, which will be released on March 29, 2019. I had the distinct honor and privilege of driving around in Devin’s car for about an hour and listening to nearly the whole thing, discussing with him the highs and lows of the record, themes and stories, and more. It was an unforgettable experience.
Interview Audio (Podcast)
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
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AG: You’ve said some pretty superlative things on Twitter about Empath, but then you’ve also taken it back. “Well it’s just an album, it’s just music, it’s just…”
DT: Both sides of me having a conversation. Okay, well what do I feel about Empath? I feel that–what I feel about it I don’t want to say. I feel like it’s brilliant. I feel like it’s–I feel like it represents me taking my life apart, laying it out, analyzing it, and letting it go.
AG: Let me tell you what Mike Keneally said.
AG: Because I emailed him and he said, “Devin is a unique creator in my experience.” This is not to embarrass you, by the way.
DT: No that’s all right.
AG: “The speed with which he works and the totality of his vision and the uniqueness of the results, he is a genius in my estimation. Empath is a truly amazing record and one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been involved in.” Morgan [Agren] told me it was an incredible project. The people in it see the genius and I think that’s worth repeating, even if you don’t want to say it.
DT: I mean, when you tell me these things about these people, my first thought is of them as people and how much I like them. I think my favorite thing about both Mike and Morgan is that I forget that they play music. And that when we have hang time, it’s nice. I think my biggest problem with it is I don’t like being the focus of that because I feel that all I’m doing is trying to honor something.
So, when they say these things about the record or when people say these things about the record, my hope is that people ultimately know that it’s not me, it’s the process. And the process is perfect, but I’m not perfect and the record’s not perfect. But what we’re trying to achieve is something that is perfect and maybe that’s why art exists because it’ll never be perfect. There’s always things to write about, right?
And I work super fast, but I also feel that’s because when you’re listening for it, it’s an immense amount of information and unless you’re focused, you’re going to miss it. So it’s just about your process has to be super fast and super efficient and you have to exercise and you have to meditate and you have to do these things because otherwise I think you end up internalizing it that this is you, as opposed to the collective unconscious where you’re just dipping your ladle into it.
Again, I think the intention is you’re dipping your ladle into it because you think it’s beautiful and you think that ultimately it can help. And I really appreciate that Mike says that and I really appreciate that Morgan says these things, but I’m super uncomfortable with it. It’s not that I don’t have an ego, because clearly my ego is enormous, but it’s just–when I sent the record out to the label, they used all these superlatives about it and I just didn’t know what to do.
I was just like, “I don’t want to respond. I don’t want to hear it.” At first, I was just like, “Oh I hope they like it. I hope they like it.” But then when they really liked it, I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to think about it.” So, clearly just by this interview you can see that my hangups as a dude are what makes the whole thing such a Gong Show, right?
AG: Well that’s why we’re here and I’m not so-and-so from X magazine.
DT: Well that’s it! I appreciate that as well because what I was always afraid of was it was going to get popular and I was going to become a representative for this sort of thing that I don’t understand. I try and surround myself with people that understand and respect me and respect the process and, you know, want to watch Rick and Morty with me.
In that way, I can do this. I can totally function. If there’s not a huge amount of importance placed on it. Sometimes I’ll have people listen to the stuff and they feel something about it is over the top and I’m just like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to be here for that.”
AG: What I think is interesting is we were talking beforehand about Morgan. You just needed to let him do his thing. Why don’t you tell that story?
DT: Well, because of the music I tend to be privy to, if I could put it that way, is a very specific vision, like super singular in a lot of ways, there’s room in there for someone’s color to make it unique. But, within that there’s fundamentals to the song. Maybe 60-75% of the song that has to be a certain way. It’s like, “That hit has to be there or else that won’t work. And this here has to go like this or else that won’t work.” But past that, what you do with the cymbals, what you do with the fills, all you. But those 60-75% of things are really complicated a lot of the time.
So with Morgan, because I spent a lot of time with Morgan, we’ve done a lot of playing, we did the Casualties of Cool project, I get along with his family, and we have a good social thing, I asked him to do it because he’s Morgan. He’s an amazing drummer and a beautiful person, I wanted that energy. But he hasn’t had to learn music since probably Zappa or Fred [Thordendal] or any of these things that he had done, so he was turning himself inside out trying to learn this stuff. He’s sending me texts like, “Man, I’ve been working on this for hours and I’ve got four bars. It just doesn’t sink in.” Right?
AG: He’s not a chart kind of guy.
DT: No! But when you let him be Morgan, there’s no one as good. So, I watched him and he’s like, “I really wanted to do this right,” and everything. He’s playing it and I’m thinking, “Man, what you’re doing doesn’t sound like Morgan to me. It sounds like you with a leash on.” So I was like, “Oh my God, the deadline for this record is coming up and there’s so much to learn and I can’t leave this to chance.”
So I said to him, “Let’s do a Skype call.” And I said, “Well what if I got two other drummers? One guy who does death metal who’s the best I can find for the CD. He’s a good dude. And one guy does progressive heavy metal. He’s willing to chart it and play it exactly with the cymbals any way we want.” And Morgan’s like, “Thank God. Sounds great.” And I said, “Okay, but I still want you on there, so let’s figure out how to do that.”
So I gave it some thought and every drummer had a different process that on the documentary I think it’s easier to hear that there. But with Morgan, at least, when he showed up, what I did was I took each song that I wanted him to do–So maybe he had four or five songs and then parts. Like the first song is Anup [Sastry] and then Sam [Paulicelli] and then Morgan and then Sam and then Anup and it’s all Frankenstein’d together.
So what I did with all Morgan’s parts was I took the song and I took each riff that I wanted him to do and he was like, “Do you want me to learn it ahead of time?” And I was like, “Well actually, no. I don’t want you to learn anything. Nothing at all.” And he showed up kind of confused like, “Well what do you want me to play?” I had taken each song and taken each riff and then I looped each riff for 20 minutes in this massive long section and I just sat in front of him and, without telling him what the riff was, I had an iPad and I put on the iPad a picture of what I wanted to achieve. If you look up YouTube, there’s four-hour sunsets…
AG: That’s where you taped it to his kick drum, right?
DT: Yeah. I said, “This is what it’s supposed to feel like.” And I just asked Nali, I said, “Press record.” And then usually three or four minutes in, Morgan was playing phenomenal things. And I was like, “Okay, next riff.” And then I just chopped it up and then put it together.
AG: That’s awesome.
DT: And it was great because at the end of it, he’s playing things that not only no one else would think of, but he wouldn’t remember if we had to do that for a week of rehearsals. It helps I got his first take of it and his crazy little embellishments. We had a great time. It was super easy and I didn’t have to work, which is awesome because I like getting it right, but I don’t like working.
AG: Go ahead.
DT: Even at the recording, Mike who loves working–I had written all these crazy little guitar things that I played once and then I forgot because I was like, “Oh that’s too hard. I don’t want to play that shit.” But Mike would say, “Well what is that part?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “Well let me figure it out!”
And then Mike would figure it out and he’d learn these riffs and then I’d be like, “Well the idea is for the bass player to do that.” And he’d say, “Well okay, maybe you can come in here while the bass player’s learning.” And I was like, “That sounds terrible.” I was like, “Why don’t you–because you learned that bit–why don’t you show him how to play it?” And he was all about it.
So he ended up taking Nathan [Navarro] and showing him all these parts, and the whole time, Anup, Sam, both those guys learned those guys learned their parts. I had Anup come over to Vancouver and I showed him exactly. And Sam, I gave him all the MIDI so that he knew it exactly. So the whole recording, Anup and Sam were in there with the engineers and they were so intent on getting it right that I knew that the parts were good and I didn’t have to do that. And Mark and Mike were so conscientious about getting these super intricate parts, like, exactly that he went to go with an engineer and he’d sit and I watched TV for two weeks.
It was great! Because when I came in, everybody was so dedicated to getting it right and I had told them ahead of time, “This is what it is. Here’s a demo. The demos are super-specific. These are the notes. This is exactly how I want it to sound.” But I don’t want to do that. It’s really difficult. [Laughs.] You know what I mean?
AG: What brought Mike in? Had you worked with Mike before?
DT: He called me.
AG: This was just a–off the cuff?
DT: He called me a couple years ago. He’s like, “I’m not doing anything. We’ve never met. We should try and do something together.”
AG: That’s what’s so great about Mike. I love that guy.
DT: Yeah! Yeah! Same. He came to Vancouver and we wrote a bunch of crazy shit that arguably doesn’t have a lot of place anywhere, which is separate from all of this.
AG: Oh! It’s not on the record.
DT: No, it’s like eight songs of just, like, explosive creative wank. You know what I mean? It’s like, a lot of fun!
AG: They sell pills for that. [Laughs.]
DT: Oh God. When are we gonna endorse ‘em? You know what I mean? ECW.
AG: Explosive Creative Wank.
DT: It’s a good name for a band, actually.
AG: You should make that happen. I could see that happening.
DT: ECW? Okay.