Exclusive Interview: Devin Townsend
On Tuesday, I had the incredible honor of sitting down with legendary musician Devin Townsend, before his show with Periphery that evening at Jaxx Nightclub in Springfield, VA. We discussed a wide variety of things ranging from his current touring experiences, his view on the music industry, and his work with his highly anticipated next project, Z2 (The second part to his acclaimed album, Ziltoid: The Omniscient). I walked away knowing one thing was for sure: Townsend is a genius. So get comfy and read on, some of his answers may end up surprising you.
MR: Hey, this is Palmer from MusicReview.co.za and I’m here with Devin Townsend, guitarist and vocalist for the Devin Townsend Project. Devin, how are you doing? What’s new?
Townsend: I’m good! Oh… What’s new? What’s new…what is new? Not a lot of fun stuff I guess – lots of work stuff, but, you know, not a lot of fun stuff.
MR: Oh, that’s a shame to hear…
Townsend: Oh, no, no. It’s good, it’s good. I mean fun stuff happens after the work stuff, so once I get all this work done I’m sure the fun’s just gonna start rolling in!
MR: Awesome, man.
Townsend: I’m happy, dude. Everything is great.
MR: Great! How’s the tour been treating you so far?
Townsend: First day today! We did the west coast last week, and that was great! You know, it’s way better than I thought it was going to be actually.
MR: Really? Just better reception or…
Townsend: Attendance, actually. There’s been a couple real boner shows, right? But I mean all in all it’s been really good! People seem to like it and the band is doing good, so I’m happy.
MR: Awesome! This next question is a bit of a turn here… I just noticed you’re playing a show in Oneonta, New York. I went to college out there – it’s such a small town, and it’s so great seeing such an accomplished musician playing such a small area. What made you decide to do a show out there?
Townsend: Well it’s never been my… my uh… well I never make the schedule, it’s the agency that did it. Honestly, we’re at the stage in this bands career where we can’t really do big shows. So I think that if you put on a good show to people in smaller towns that don’t get as many shows, ultimately that goes a long way as well. If you put effort into something like that as opposed to complaining about it being a small show or whatever, then I think you get people, one by one, that are interested in what you’re doing and that becomes a long term project for me.
MR: That’s really insightful, it seems like more and more people are forgetting to cater to their fans. Since your brief hiatus you seem to have been really, really busy…
Townsend: *Laughs* Oh yeah.
MR: Well you released Ki and Addicted last year, and you’ve got Ghost and Deconstruction coming out this year. How’s the progress?
Townsend: Well, Ghost is done. Deconstruction, I start the day I get home from tour. I’m going to Prague to do the symphony and the choir on Deconstruction and umm… Ghost is a really pretty record. Neither of them I’m expecting to, like, tear the charts up, but in terms of what I want to do… I want to entertain people with a live show. With Ghost and Deconstruction, there’s two more options in terms of mood, so basically I can say, “Okay, now I’ve got a bunch of heavy stuff I can draw from, or now I’ve got some really mellow stuff I can draw from.” Ultimately, in my mind, it makes the show become more well rounded and that’s important.
MR: Yeah, the more options the better. So how do you feel about these past couple records and the ones that are coming up?
Townsend: Well, I mean, as the person who makes it I love it! I don’t listen to them anymore, though. Once they’re done, I’m done, right? I don’t make records just to make records, as much as it may seem like it. *Laughs* I really like the process, I’ve got a bunch of things that interest me thematically and I just like staying busy.
MR: Do you have a favorite one so far?
Townsend: Out of all four?
Townsend: I think they’re all neck in neck. I mean – I like Ghost a lot right now, because I just finished it and I’m not bored with it, but uh… I think they’re all really cool, in my mind at least… It’s debatable, in terms of other people, but I mean, for me I think they’re great.
MR: Fair enough. Where would you say you got all of this inspiration from? You’ve written four albums pretty much simultaneously.
Townsend: Well, I quit drinking and quit doing drugs, you know, about four years ago – and by drugs I mean smoking marijuana.
Townsend: I don’t know, I felt like before when I was drinking and smoking I had so much time that I spent “relaxing” that now that doesn’t exist I have a lot more time to fill up with things that are really engaging. Music and writing and all that stuff, it’s a great substitute for getting high.
MR: Good for you, man. So Z2 – part two to your album Ziltoid: The Omniscient – is a project that you’ve announced for the not-so-distant future. A lot of people are excited about it, including myself.
Townsend: Thanks, dude.
MR: Seeing as the first one is my favorite, as well as a fan favorite, are there any details you can give that we can look forward to?
Townsend: Ziltoid hasn’t really told me what he’s planning yet.
MR: *Laughs* Okay, think you can get him to start talking now?
Townsend: He’s given me some clues. Something to do… well he started meditating, and he’s having a really hard time with it. He’s under the impression that everything is Ziltoid. So it has something to do with that. He’s been very guarded with this… it’s pissing me off.
MR: I can imagine, man. HevyDevy is your personal label. You’re using it to produce your own music – have you given any consideration to signing other bands?
Townsend: Oh, god no.
Townsend: No way, man.
MR: What’s stopping you from doing that?
Townsend: Dude, I know how much of a pain in the ass I am to the labels; the last thing I want to do is have somebody bring that into my world. *Laughs* Honestly, it’s like… (Phone rings and Devin glances at it) Sorry, what was I saying? Oh yeah – so I think the people who are really good at being label people are the people who as kids just walked around saying, “I wanna be a label guy.” When I was a kid I ran around talking about how I wanted to play music, so I just feel like I’m doing what I should be doing. If I ended up being a label guy, I’d be a SHITTY label guy.
MR: *Laughs* You’ve got to stick to what you’re good at right?
Townsend: I think it’s more than just that. It’s not just what you’re good at, it’s what you’re interested in.
MR: Gotcha, good advice. So I interviewed Ryan Wombacher from Bleeding Through when he was in town last month and he raved about his experience with you.
Townsend: Oh, wicked!
MR: He called you a “mad scientist”.
Townsend: *Laughs* Ryan’s fun, man. I like Ryan a lot.
MR: Yeah, he’s a great guy.
Townsend: Great bass player too…
MR: Yeah, incredibly good bass player! What was it like working with them on Declaration?
Townsend: It was a strange time for me, and it was a hard time for them. They had a real dark period, because of their label and everything. We tried to do all sorts of fancy stuff, but I had a tiny little studio in Vancouver… but, uh… they’re legit, you know? And they’re legitimately, like, pissed off! I’ve worked with a lot of metal bands and I get pissed off about whatever I get pissed off about, right? I don’t like getting stuck in traffic, and you know, normal stuff like that. But, dude, I can’t afford to be pissed off. I’ve got a kid and I’m 38. If I’m pissed off, it has to be for a reason. So when I write music I get pissed off every now and then, and a lot of metal bands, I find – not metalcore, but metal bands – sound all pissed off, then you meet them and you’re just like… huh?
MR: Ryan was really nice when I met him.
Townsend: Well, actually, what I’ve found from Bleeding Through was like, they were the one band I worked with that really were pissed off. They were legitimately angry people. That was interesting for me because I felt like they deserved to have good treatment done to them, because they were really coming from the heart and that means a lot to me.
MR: Ryan expressed a lot of interest in working with you again, would you want to produce another record with them?
Townsend: I’m not producing anymore.
MR: So you are really done with that?
Townsend: I mean, if someone came up to me and said, “Here, Devin, here’s a million dollars. Produce our band.” I’d be like, “You got it!” But budgets now are around $12,000 and you spend $8,000 just tracking the drums. Basically, you end up working for practically no money. I’ve got a kid and house payments and I just can’t afford it anymore.
MR: Well, it’s great to see you back on the scene playing music. It seemed for a while there you were pretty intent on staying away from touring.
Townsend: I was afraid of people, honestly. I was terrified of doing this because I was afraid of people, I was afraid of this, I was just afraid of talking to them. It became a kind of phobia. Then all the sudden when I got back out and started doing it I realized that everyone is afraid of everyone else. I mean, the internet is such a huge thing, it’s like, we all – well not everyone, but a lot of us have the option to not deal with people. I found that after a while in seclusion I was thinking, “Well I don’t know if I can face people,” then when I started getting out there I realized, no, no, I like people, I like playing music.
MR: So just getting yourself out there helped you get back in the right direction?
Townsend: Yeah, basically just jumping off the cliff and then hoping that I was going to land. I’m still falling *laughs*, but the ground’s getting closer and my legs seem to be in pretty good shape, so I think it’ll be a beautiful landing.
MR: Lately, I’ve been noticing a troubling trend, artists don’t seem to be backed as well by their labels anymore. It seems as if they’re just not getting enough support, and when they are it doesn’t really seem to be the right kind of support. Look at what happened with Bleeding Through. Considering your problems in the beginning and the fact that you’re a producer and label owner yourself, what is your view on all of this?
Townsend: Well I think it was actually Oderus Urungas from Gwar that said, “People that trumpet their sufferings are usually the ones that are the most deserving.” I mean, yeah, I had problems in the beginning, but, I mean, at the end of the day, dude, I’m lucky to be doing this. I put out records, I’m happy, I’m on tour, I’m good. I’m never going to be the Britney Spears of anything, thank god, but, I mean, what’s to complain about? My brother-in-law works at the mill – he’s got fucking problems. Everyone’s got problems. I think that it’s important that everyone who reaches this stage of musical development looks around and realizes that they’re lucky. You got to put out a record… How many people would kill to put out a record? You get to tour! How many people would kill to go on tour? I think that always thinking about the future, having that mindset where you’re always thinking, “Oh well, in the future it’s going to be better, it’s going to be better,” then you never enjoy… uh…
MR: What’s currently taking place?
Townsend: Yeah, what’s currently taking place? I mean, the fact that there are labels that are willing, in this day and age, to fund somebody making a symphony about a cheeseburger? *Laughs* I mean, dude, you’ve got to count your blessings! It’s not like people like me are saying, “Here, dude, here’s this new thing that sounds kind of like a cross between Nickelback and Disturbed and it’s really going to sell because I’ve got good teeth!” No, dude, it’s more like, “I look like a fucking frog and I’m writing a bunch of fucking shit about some fucking cheeseburgers. You down?”
MR: *Laughs* Gotcha, gotcha. That’s a pretty positive outlook actually.
Townsend: (Laughs) Thanks, man. I mean, really, man, to not be positive in terms of your outlook – well, that’s a choice! You’re choosing to be miserable if you’re miserable, especially if you’ve got good things going for you.
MR: You’ve released over a dozen albums amongst your various projects, you’ve played with Steve Vai, you’ve produced a bunch of records with flourishing musicians and you’re one of the most innovative minds in all of metal and hard rock. What’s left for you to accomplish?
Townsend: I don’t know.
MR: No idea?
Townsend: I mean, I’ve got a ton of ideas, man. It’s just… wherever it goes, I’ll go. Let’s go! I just want to do a good job and have some fun!
MR: Awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Townsend: Yeah, if you’re doing it to be a star or you’re doing it for the money, then I don’t think many people are going to ultimately end up liking you. You’ve got to do it, because want to do it because the chances of being successful are really slim. So if you – after a while – give up because you’re not successful then you probably weren’t doing it for the right reasons in the first place. I think I would just say that the glamour and everything behind it is also the thing that slows you down. So really if you’re in it for the money, music isn’t the thing you need to be doing it. It wouldn’t make you happy, and what you need to do is say, “Well, I want money, I want things to be quiet, I want to make furniture, I want my weekends off, I want to have a bottle of wine on Sunday night and I want to sleep eight hours every day.” Wait… that’s me.
MR: I think that’s what everybody wants.
Townsend: Well, that’s true. I mean, you’ve got to find you really want.
Devin, we at MusicReview would like to thank you for your time and wish you luck with the rest of your tour and your upcoming releases. Both of his new albums are slated for a tentative release in April of 2011.