Thinking Out Loud: Devin Townsend
The singer and songwriter on sex, money, aliens, processing success, lower tier prog metal and the enduring appeal of collecting driftwood
Devin Townsend has a work ethic that makes Dave Grohl look lazy.
Just look at the bands he's played in, for a start: Strapping Young Lad, The Devin Townsend Band, Vai, The Wildhearts, Front Line Assembly, Casualties Of Cool and The Devin Townsend Project.
Don’t get us started on the countless bands he’s produced, influenced and championed over the years. He’s been progressive metal’s effervescent beacon of hope for around two decades, farting his way into our hearts. Nowadays, he seldom ceases the vicious record/tour cycle, so here are some info nuggets he’s chewed on his way around the block...
“If I get a salary, then my wife will have sex with me – so that’s great. If people are gonna buy something, when they can download it for free, you have to put the effort in. If you don’t do that, it’s just the label re-releasing the same album six times with a different font or something. Everyone thinks the industry’s dying, so they have to squeeze as much money out of it as possible. On one hand, I put a lot of time into my new boxset because I want it to be worth the fans’ money. But on the other hand, I dreamed of doing this when I was a kid! That hasn’t gone away. I don’t just say, “Oh, lemme know when it’s done.” I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t get involved.”
"Everybody likes money. Everybody wants to have sex and eat. Bands that keep going just for the sake of it, I totally understand. I’ve managed to diversify, and as a result people expect other things from me. It would just suck to have to keep lying to people, like, 'This is the best, heaviest record we’ve ever done! We’re the same! We have the same clothes and the same hair, but we’re a little fatter!' It’s a marketing thing a lot of times. All those things go hand in hand, right? The benefit I’ve had is never being super successful, so I never have to be tied to anything.”
“Worse shit has happened to better people. As much as it sounds like a glib catchphrase, it’s the truth. It’s easy to compare your success or talent – or lack, thereof – to other people, and it becomes a strangely competitive thing in heavy music. It’s very easy to look at your friend’s band and say, 'Oh, they’re doing better than me', but it’s all perspective. If you lose sight of why you started making music in the first place – to illustrate time, to articulate emotions you have a hard time expressing in real life, whatever – for either money or trying to be young when you’re not, I think you lose the plot entirely.”
"You put a face or a band on a shirt, but after a while it’s just like, 'fuck those guys', But with an alien, the sky’s the limit. People have a shelf life. It’s only a matter of time before somebody who puts themselves out there as better than someone else is outed as being the same asshole everyone else is. You can have an emotional investment in a character that you can take any way you want, but sometimes I get bored of it, and that’s the only liability. It has a shelf life for me, personally. It’s like, 'What do I do now? Ziltoid Lays An Egg or something?'”
“You just plough through fields of shit and that shit solidifies into records. Those records represent what was going on at that point. When I was 25, that’s who I was; now I’m 43, this is who I am. It’s unavoidable. The only thing you can do is try and rationalise it for people, because I don’t expect them to understand.”
“It’s unhealthy to try process success. I’m able to continue because I’m surrounded by people and circumstances that keep my feet on the ground. If any of this stuff had happened during Strapping Young Lad, when I was less emotionally mature – and that’s not saying much, that’s a low bar – then I might have taken it to heart a little more. But now, the only way I can get through those experiences and process them is just go, 'eh'. I’m not trying to be flippant, because it’s great and it’s an honour and everything, but it’s music. It’s lower tier, intermediate prog metal that does OK in certain territories and shit in others, right?”
“When I first started working on my book, I thought it was the stupidest idea ever. I’m 43. It’s not like I’m Keith Richards or something. It’s ridiculous. I dictated it to a guy, and when I read it back I was like, 'No, no. This doesn’t make any sense. There are no good tour stories!' I don’t party. Even when I did used to drink and smoke weed, years ago, I’d just fall asleep. The stories would be like, 'And one day, there were prostitutes backstage, but I had two beers and fell asleep. The next day, there was an altercation with the Hell’s Angels, but I was over-stimulated and fell asleep.' I’ve made so many mistakes, but I know how to do this: the pitfalls, how to keep the band together and what it takes to do this financially. It became totally cathartic and the book is, I’d like to think, a helpful read to folks who have a fantasy about how this thing works. The book doesn’t dispel it, but I’ve been doing this a long time and I have no reason to lie, and I think there’s a lot of value in that. It’s just a pain in the ass.”
“There’s a lot more people now who have an investment in saying I’m a piece of shit. I pay less attention to it now than I once did, because at the level I’m getting to now – again, it’s lower intermediate – it’s not like I’m upset that they’re calling me a piece of shit. It just doesn’t help. It also doesn’t help to read people who overlook the flaws. My reason for making music isn’t to make perfect records, it’s about the process. The things that made City and Ocean Machine: Biomech cool barely exist in me anymore. You have to use what you’ve got to do the best that you can. Sometimes people say it’s not as good as the older stuff, and, in a certain way, I totally agree. But in another way, I think that it’s exactly who I am right now.
How I feel about music is totally different to how I felt about it when I was in my twenties. I used to live and breathe it. I remember when Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction came out; dude, I painted that onto the inside of my car. I was, like, stalking bands after the shows and I lived it. As you get older, you have kids, you’re tired, you’re flying all the time and you just want quiet. If someone says I should have the same passion for that style of music I used to do, it’s impossible. What I write about now is written with the same intention but it’s about things that are pertinent to me now. A lot of people younger than me don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense to them and that’s fine. People change and you have to evolve.”
“I collect driftwood. Driftwood’s great. It’s got these crazy forms which are just the result of dead things being battered around by the ocean, and they’re just so twisted and gnarly. You just bolt ‘em together and they make these bizarre sculptures out of themselves. It’s super caveman, too – you don’t have to have finesse. Wrap it up with a rope and hammer some nails into it and you’ve got yourself this crazy-looking thing sprayed black or whatever.”