If you like your rock’n’roll bluesy, dirty and with a dash of psychedelic country, Brisbane’s …
If you’re down and out and Devin Townsend’s music has pulled you out of a maelstrom of sadness, great. But if you’re expecting a cure for your case of the human condition, you’re dialling the wrong area code.
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There’s a lot of music out there that seems to have the answers—the answer to a dull life, the answer to what we’re meant to do, the answer to life’s great unanswered. Devin Townsend is no stranger to the phenomenon we call music. He’s been in the industry—a metaphor that denotes the mechanised—for almost three decades now. Producing music for that long, it’s hard to not feel like a cog in a vast contraption. Can a machine make meaningful music? That’s a matter of interpretation. You put ten people in a room and they’ll hear ten different things. Some might call Devin Townsend the messiah; others think he’s a poop-obsessed naughty guitar boy. Ahead of his special acoustic tour, hot on the heels of latest opus Empath, Devin opens up about what drives him today, why music won’t save the world, and what the hell was up with all those kitten sounds in Genesis?
Hysteria: First off Devin, I have something to tell you.
I have to tell you that birds and bread don’t mix. I don’t know why, but it does.
Okay, does it kill them or what?
Apparently if you feed birds bread and put it in the water the yeast fucks up their ecosystem, so don’t do that anymore.
So are you going to follow up this statement by saying you’ve been killing birds lately?
I will not confirm nor deny that. I’m just passing on the message.
All right, well your secret is safe with me and I’m off to buy some bread.
Awesome. I want to touch base about Empath. Last time we talked it wasn’t out yet. Now it’s been a couple of months since the release. What’s the feeling now that it’s out in the open, reviews have come in, and you’ve got a sense of reactions to it?
You know, it’s such a bittersweet thing releasing records because it’s such a huge part of your world while you’re doing it. It’s every note, every cymbal hit, every frequency, everything that you deliberate about, and the psychodrama that goes into every aspect of making it is all consuming, and then when you release it, yeah, it’s another record in a long series of records and tonnes of people have put out records on the same day, and another one that dissolves into the sea of creativity, right? However, the reaction to this one was in line with what I had hoped and exceeded it in some ways. I think I was afraid that people were going to view it as being just preposterously self-absorbed, and although it is clearly there’s an aspect to that as well that just needed to be there, like I needed to do that.
It wasn’t an unconscious choice that all of a sudden it happened and I’m able to look at it in hindsight and says, “Wow, I was super self-absorbed.” No, I knew from the beginning it was this big, bloated beast of a record. I was afraid that people would see that and that alone and disregard the reason why it was that bloated, but overwhelmingly people seemed to not only understand it but understand its intention. Its intention was, hopefully, to help in some way, like maybe in a sea of depression and psychological malady that seems to be prevalent in not only the artistic community but just society in general. Making something that had, at its core, the intention of like, I hope this helps. It was something that I think has been recognised on the record, and I’m very thankful for that, hugely thankful for that, and yeah man, it was really overwhelming the reaction to this record.
There’s lots of positive things on it, like the kittens and stuff, and all the sounds. Obviously you don’t want to go too far into making it saccharine. Do you tread a balance between being realistic in your music and being positive? Is it hard to stay positive in the music business?
Well I think I got three things down. Number one, I never try to be saccharine or positive at all. I put kittens in there because I wanted to put kittens in there. There was no market research that went into whether or not that’s going to affect people. You know what I mean? It’s like I just felt like doing it. Positivity is something that in the past, particularly over the past few records, I felt like I went down a rabbit hole with to the point where it was unrealistic.
With Empath I think that the positivity that’s prevalent on this record is also juxtaposed by a lot of brutality, which is something that I haven’t done for a while. And so it’s a much more realistic view on positivity where you adhere a value to things that you choose to adhere to, and maybe things are just we’re in a fundamentally chaotic universe, and maybe nothing ultimately means shit, but I choose to adhere value to it, my family, my friends, my work, and whatever. The awareness of that was something I was trying to get in there, and then the fine line between absurdity and reality for me is something that I struggle when people don’t understand it because when things are 100% serious, what I think gets lost in that is the absurdity of the fucking human experience, you know?
It’s like I think the line that you tread by making just completely serious music all the time is like what U2 does. You end up getting this martyr-ish, save the world bullshit. I mean, there’s a market for it because people want heroes, and martyrs, and all this but it’s unrealistic as human animals because we’re just so fucking dumb that I tend to juxtapose moments of reality in my work with things that are just absurd, not only because I just get bored or irritated with my own work but also because you can only go so far with the seriousness before you’re just like, “Oh yeah, but it’s so stupid.” We’re just these absurd shitting, farting, emotionally-charged, emotionally reactive primates that are toying with quantum mechanics.
It’s like that dichotomy exists in us in such an overt way that to not include that aspect of absurdity seems to be incongruent with what it is that I represent as an entity I guess, what we all represent. So it’s like a lot of times people look at it as, “Oh, you’re sabotaging your own work,” or you’re like, “I like it except when it goes to this part and you tend to make a scat humour joke and all this sort of thing.” But again, I think what I am hopefully quick to point out with that is I’m like, “Look, I don’t do that to try and be provocative. I don’t do that to try and make a point or try and shoot myself in the foot. I do it because that’s what I think it should do, that’s it.”
I remember, for example, like in Genesis, adding the cat to that part, I remember putting that in. It made me fucking cry, dude, and it wasn’t because it was stupid. It was because it was a release. It comes from the part before is speaking very much like, “Why can’t we just fucking get away from this? Why can’t we just get away from it?” And all of a sudden when the cats come in it’s such a release for me that nothing else is going to do that.
Well, thinking about it, humans as a species have been around three million years. We’ve been recording music for what, 50 or 60 of those years? A thousand years from now, who knows if we’ll be listening to music. Like you said on Terria, “We’re just talking meat, and music’s just entertainment, folks!” Do you have that sense of scale and enormity and it’s just like, “Well, I’m doing what I like. There’s not much more to it than that.” If people are trying to think this is going to save the world like U2 is you think they’re a bit, I don’t know, full of themselves?
Absolutely. Not only that, again, there’s a market for it. People want to hear somebody say, “Hey, I’ve got answers.” I think it’s very easy, the specific really is insecure people. A lot of times entertainers start off as people who are insecure but fortunately sometimes I think we evolve away from that but maybe there’s a certain amount of that need for validity from strangers that comes into the motivation to do it in the first place that you start getting a fan base and … You know, it’s funny, I remember people would listen to what I did and they come up and they’d write you letters or they’d send you texts or whatever saying, “Oh, the music has really helped me,” or “I was going to kill myself but then I didn’t because of this,” and these are all things that are very flattering, but then you start touring with other bands and you realise that that happens to every band. This is a part of the interaction a lot of the times between audience and artists.
It’s not a mundane or exciting part, it’s just a “part.”
Mmm. So if you are not careful and you interpret that what you’re doing is of such value that you can no longer take into consideration how fallible you are as a person, how insecure you are or how much need other people’s adulation to sort of validate your own trip, if you don’t take that into consideration I think you can go down a rabbit hole with that stuff that ultimately separates the work from being something that is relatable, because the heroes and martyrs, man. Everybody’s looking for that and to be that. The amount of cults that start up, people just saying, “Well I have the answers, I’m Jesus, this is the way.”
I think that music becomes a religion in a lot of ways for people. I’m sure for you and I too, it’s like when I am emotionally invested in somebody’s work it’s of such importance to me that it’s like a spiritual thing, right? However, it’s like you say, it’s been around for the blink of an eye and the enormity of that, what I just spoke of, is not lost on me, but the reality of it is that it’s not important. What I do is of no significance universally on one level yet it all kind of resonates and has ripple effects with everybody else on another level.
So I want to make sure that my intention is something that I can get behind, for example, on this record I wanted it to be hope through the chaos, and hopefully something that resonates with an anti-suicide frame of mind, but also I can’t ignore that if I have musical motivation to do something that seems absurd to people but seems to right to me there’s no way I’m not going to follow it.
I remember, for example, like in Genesis, adding the cat to that part, I remember putting that in. It made me fucking cry, dude, and it wasn’t because it was stupid. It was because it was a release. It comes from the part before is speaking very much like, “Why can’t we just fucking get away from this? Why can’t we just get away from it?” And all of a sudden when the cats come in it’s such a release for me that nothing else is going to do that. You know what I mean? And so I can certainly see that people listen to what I do and they’re like, “Oh, it’s stupid. They put cats in there,” but to me I’m thinking to myself, “That served a real practical purpose for me.” You know what I mean? It wasn’t like, “You know what would be great? Our market research tells me that the demographic between 18 and 25 are really into cats. Therefore, we should add cats.” You know what I mean?
It’s like, no, it really fucking worked, so I added it.
It’s interesting you say that because you wouldn’t be in this unless there was some kind of drive, this ego drive. However would it be pointless if it was just for that. Do you have to start with ego but end up with consciousness or realisation? Is that where you’re headed with your music?
Well, I like to think that my entire career and the entire process that I’ve hopefully demonstrated through all these records of varying quality has been rooted in some sort of quest for self-actualisation. By that I mean I just want to be all right. I don’t want to be fucked up. I don’t want to be insecure. I don’t want to be afraid more than anything else. So in the beginning, absolutely, my need for validation and my ego and all of these things drew me to this career because yeah, it’s great to have people that you don’t know and you have no investment in tell you that they like you is easy and super gratifying because then you don’t have to be known by people, you know?
It’s like the people that are going to call you on your shit are the people that have known you for years or your family but strangers don’t. You can make a record and project into the world exactly the image that you want people to believe that you are and then on some level feel adulation for something that is like an exaggeration of who you are.
So, that certainly was a motivation when I started. I wanted to be validated, but each record that has gone by, for whatever reason, as a child maybe I wasn’t actively encouraged to display emotions so music became a loophole for that as somebody who was very sensitive, but each record acts as sort of a peeling away of those layers with self-actualisation as the goal.
So what about now?
Ultimately one would hope that you get to the point where you’re just making music because you like music. I think the only thing that flies in the face of that is as soon as you monetise anything, whether or not it’s music, or journalism, or anything, as soon as you monetise it your motivation for it is different than just a purity, like that’s it. So the fact that I make money off of this, there’s clearly still an egocentric motivation to it, but also I also have to make peace of the fact that I’m almost 50 years old and I got a family, like this is what I do. So I think like everything, man, it’s a lot of duality, and maybe this making peace with the fact that there’s no black and white to any of this shit is exactly what’s important about this for me.
You’re coming over to Australia for an acoustic tour. What kind of songs can we expect?
Songs from all over the catalogue, even back to Strapping [Young Lad, his first band.]
It’s important me to do that because I felt like towards the end of some of the last few years things got really mechanised and they got really away from my objective of just playing music. The acoustic tour is an intimate thing and it’s the entire back catalogue in a lot of ways, requests, interactive sort of Q and A thing. It’s a great show, dude. I really think it’s a great show, and it’s important for to me as a first step of this Empath process because it sets the stage for me to build up to what it is that I’ve always wanted to do that I haven’t actually nailed yet, right? And in the half time, because there’s a half time in it, I’m bringing birds out and I’m going to feed them bread and watch them die.
I’ll do it slowly though and really dramatically.
We heard this rumour when we were kids that if you put Panadol in bread that seagulls’ heads would explode.
I remember it was Pepsi.
They can’t burp or something. Did they take it?
No, they didn’t.
Oh well. Seagulls one, humanity zero.
Catch An Evening with Devin Townsend this September:
MELBOURNE // Sunday 8th September // Thornbury Theatre
ADELAIDE // Tuesday 10th September // Governor Hindmarsh
BRISBANE // Wednesday 11th September // Old Museum
SYDNEY // Friday 13th September // York Theatre (SOLD OUT)
MELBOURNE // Saturday 14th September // Thornbury Theatre (SOLD OUT)PERTH // Sunday 15th September // Freo Social