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The war inside Devin Townsend’s incredible head has yielded beauty beyond compare. We’re all grateful for the bounty, but what about this Canadian prodigy? What does a veteran of psychic wars struggle with beneath the surface?
If you listen close to Devin’s music, you hear it. Fizzing engrams bursting overhead like Roman candles in all colours imaginable. However as the embers fade, it’s dark out there. For all the accolades and love from his fans and the press, Devin has struggled with depression, anxiety, and drug abuse. Empath, his first solo effort since all-but dissolving The Devin Townsend Project is another run-up-the-flagpole of Devin’s outlook on life, on love, and on the human condition. Has the darkness receded? Or has he just made peace with that insurmountable duality we all struggle with? We only try to find out.
Empath is your first album under “Devin Townsend”, distinct from “The Devin Townsend Project” since 2014. Is there a shift in mindset when you do that?
I don’t know if there’s a real shift in mindset, but there’s a shift in priorities. And I think a lot of that really came down to the fact that I don’t want to be in a touring rock band for a living. I didn’t know that until I really started getting into it. A lot of the reason for that is because the way that my work tends to function is it’s a reaction to what’s going on in my life. The way that people have typically, sort of, responded to what I do is because it’s coming from a place that is authentic, I think.
My whole life revolves around being in a touring rock band, I mean that’s all that you end up writing about. It’s like your whole sphere of influence, creatively, becomes this kind of inward thing. And I just, I don’t know man, I just got to a point maybe to do with mid-life, maybe to do with home life or my own existential hangups or what have you, that I just felt like, “Well, is this it? Is this what I’m going to be doing now for the rest of my world?” And I just decided that I didn’t want to pursue that to the exclusion of all these other things in my life that I wanted to do. So I think it’s similar, in a sense to what happened with Strapping [Young Lad.] You just have to follow it, I think. I think it’s important to just follow these things where they lead you.
To the outside world, we see Devin Townsend as a man of many hats. Producer, guitar clinician, solo artist, touring artist. Did the DTP really feel like that was the be all and end all of Devin Townsend? Tour the world, play to fans?
Yeah, which sounds nice actually when you say it that way. Yeah, I mean it’s not a criticism towards the band, it’s not a criticism towards the music or anything like that. I just, I think in life what I’m realising as I get older, is that my priorities revolve around having a reality that’s kind of varied. I like having, you know, one day I might be doing a guitar clinic, and then it could be a band, and then it could be acoustic, and then it could be a couple months off, and then it could be a musical or a video game, or an orchestral thing, or go away to some retreat or something. And just the freedom to do whatever comes into my frame of interests is, I think, what the reason for me breaking off and doing this was rooted in. Just the freedom to do whatever it is I feel like doing, became, I don’t know, it became creatively very important to me as well, because through those sort of varied activities, I tend to find that my desire to be creative keeps alight. Then when it’s one thing, all the time, all the time, all the time, I just, honestly… I just get bored. And I think that’s what it comes down to.
Would you say that you’re a person that sort of craves varied stimulation? I mean this in a creative sense, where doing that same thing will lead to an inevitable inertia, stagnation.
Hundred percent. Hundred percent. And you know what’s funny is it seems like that is a complicated thing to express to people because I truly believe that, from the outside, doing what I do creatively can appear to be something other than it is. And I love my job, and I love being able to do what I do, but what you just expressed implies to me that this is not an uncommon thing to run into. It’s not uncommon to just be like, “Man, I just, creatively inert now.” Because it’s this treadmill that you get on.
And I think that, when I started DTP, I hadn’t really considered that it was gonna become another touring band like Strapping did. It was more of a band of convenience, in a sense, where it was a bunch of talented players, locally, that I could get out on the road and represent the back catalogue with. But initially it was just gonna be those four records and I hadn’t really considered what was gonna come after that. But then it just kind of snowballs. A band starts becoming more popular, opportunities start coming in, and then in order to sort of facilitate those opportunities you need new material. And I think, if there’s anything that I’ve needed to sort of integrate into my creative process, was just the ability and the willingness to say no to things.
I think for many years I would just be like, “Oh, yeah, okay, sure.” And then just, before you knew it, I was involved with something that I just… Not that it was bad, but I was just like, “Well I don’t know if this is really what I want.” You know? So I think Empath is a record… I mean, creatively and musically, it’s in line with what I’ve done. I mean, it’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s maybe a little more free and a little more unrestrained, but ultimately it’s a reflection on what I’ve done over the past twenty years. But in order to, sort of, analyse my past and analyse my motivations, musically, it required me sort of going through the back catalogue and understanding my relationship with each one of those musical dynamics. Be it the heavy stuff or the orchestral stuff or the more commercial stuff. That analysis I think really brought with it a certain amount of sort of mid-life self reflection.
I feel that a good portion of the experience of being human is just, maybe not wrestling, but learning to quantify the sort of duality that exists within us, right? I’m okay with that conflict. I think in the past I’ve been guilty of portraying it as being some sort of dramatic event. And it’s not, really. It’s just life.
Touching on some of the songs, Spirits Will Collide, for one has this inner turmoil, heaven vs. hell dynamic. I feel like you’re wrestling with yourself, in a way. I remember on Terria, you sang on Tiny Tears; “I’m 29 years old, and I’m a million miles away.” One could say you felt lost. Now one could say you’ve found yourself, but in doing so, you’ve found another conflict, another hurdle to overcome.
You’re totally right, man. And I mean… But again I can’t think that’s exclusive to musicians or to me. I can imagine that if you’ve been paying attention and listening for as long as you have, I can’t imagine your life is much different. You know what I mean? I would be shocked if I actually met somebody who was not conflicted, and if they’re not they’re usually really religious or something.
It’s like I feel that a good portion of the experience of being human is just, maybe not wrestling, but learning to quantify the sort of duality that exists within us, right? I’m okay with that conflict. I think in the past I’ve been guilty of portraying it as being some sort of dramatic event. And it’s not, really, it’s just life. You have your good days, you have your bad days, you’ve got the existential ups and downs, you’ve got the desire to be pennant and kind, but that’s also juxtaposed by sometimes it’s wanting to burn it all to the ground. And I think that that is a very normal state of being for our species and I believe that the difference between what I’m doing now and maybe what I was doing with Terria is it’s now more about just observing that stuff rather than having these things define me, specifically. I think back with Terria, I had so much of my personality invested in what I was doing creatively that whatever I did was my identity. Now if these feelings of aggression arise and feelings of sadness arise, or what have you, it’s about actualising them and then just sort of letting them go.
I think that’s healthy, man, and I think that’s why the record is as varied as it is. Although it’s clearly a complicated statement, I don’t think it is devoid of trajectory. I think it’s got a very linear path to it. It’s just, this time, I’m not as concerned about whether or not my observations on these things are gonna make people think I’m nuts. Know what I mean? It’s like “It is what it is, dude.”
For sure. On this album you collab with the beautiful Anneke van Giersbergen again, but the sore-thumb highlight for me was Chad Kroeger of Nickelback. How? Why?
Well I mean I think the easiest way to answer that is we grew up in similar scene. We’re from Vancouver.
Fair enough. Care to share more?
Well, long story short, I had heard a Nickelback song and saw them play live over the past few years and it sort of changed my perspective on them. I was like, “Wow, they’re actually really good live. They sound great and he’s in tune and the drums sound great.” And whatever. And then I heard the new record and I was like, “Oh, I actually think this is a cool song.” So I put up on Twitter, “Hey, I think the new Nickelback song is cool.” And as you can imagine, the shitstorm that happened—
I hope you can hear me rolling my eyes, Dev.
Was insane. But I got a text from him the next day saying, “Hey, this is Chad, we’ve never met, I appreciate you saying nice things about me.” And I said, “Well, to be fair, I haven’t always done so.” And, I don’t know, it just ended up being this sort of this freak thing, we ended up getting together and there’s no competition between us. I mean how are you gonna compete on a commercial level with a guy like that?
It’s a level of magnitude bigger than the entire metal scene. Its insane how successful that band is.
I mean, you can’t. And I realised through the meeting with him and once we kind of worked out our past, you know, he had a lot of respect for me. And just talking to him I realised that the reason he writes what he does is not contrived in a way that I had assumed it was. He’s just kind of being honest with himself. I think at that point I was kind of considering throwing in the towel and writing a record that was really, sort of like, commercial. But he actually gave me the advice, he was like, “I really don’t think you should do that. I think you should just follow it to its most extreme conclusion.” And it was just really good advice and it was advice coming from somebody that… It was just a strange situation and I really appreciated that. It really helped me make the decision to make a record that was more uncompromising than I’ve done in a awhile. So having him on the record was more of a token of that moment, rather than anything as provocative as it clearly became, right?
At the end of the day, you’re both musicians. You have shared history. Everything else is just complication.
Nickelback is this lightning rod for hate. It’s not like metalheads listen to them. It is what it is. So who cares, really.
Well, nor do I. I think a lot of it, for me, was I was jealous. You know what I mean? It’s like I’ve been beating my head against the wall for 25 years doing what I do and then somebody from your same town is like, “Well here’s my fourth jet.” You know what I mean? It’s just kind of like “Well it’s because you suck.” You know what I mean? It’s like there’s this kinda I think petulant thing that comes in.
We touched on it before, but will you be coming back to Australia? Perhaps not for a tour, but a guitar clinic or something like that?
Yeah, so basically what I’m doing prior to the next group of musicians that I’m putting together, which I’m currently in the process of assembling right now, and it’s gonna be really cool, really different. But before that I’m doing these acoustic shows, which allows me to sort of strip everything that I’ve down over the past 25 years back to its bare roots. And I think it’s a really cool show, I think it’s surprisingly interesting. So I’m gonna probably come back to do these acoustic thing for a couple of dates. And then the following year I’ll be there with a new group of musicians and the new version of what I do is gonna be significantly different than what I’ve done in the past. I hope to see you there.
I’ll be there. I hope the album does will for you Dev. Not Nickelback well, but well nonetheless.
Yeah man, I’ll just say this. In meeting with Chad I realise that I don’t want my music to be as popular as that. That would cause me way too many problems. I mean the nature of what I do is just so insular and so weird that if it became super popular, man, it would just fuckin’ be a lot of problems for me. So I’m happy for it just to sort of bubble away and be the sort of oddity that allows me to make a living. I’m more than satisfied with that.