ZT EXCLUSIVE: DEVIN TOWNSEND STICKS TO HIS MUSICAL GUNS
If you can count on anything when it comes to Devin Townsend and his music, it will most certainly be that it is all 100% from the heart with this musical madman. Hevy Devy can be associated with a number of different musical styles and outputs that could potentially label him as a schizophrenic in some cases, but it’s all genuine as he himself will attest to. But before the release of his most recent album, “Epicloud,” Townsend might have felt that his discography could be a bit on the empty side. “Typically I haven’t allowed myself to just make a solid record of just songs that rock,” says this Canadian from the couch in his dressing room on the Houston, TX stop on his recent tour with Katatonia and Paradise Lost. “It’s always been stuff like ‘Ziltoid [the Omniscient – 2007]’ or [Townsend’s second ambient album] ‘The Hummer’ or [Strapping Young Lad’s 2005 album] ‘Alien,’ and I feel that. But I’ve really felt the need to get over the fact that I do love commercial music and it’s important for me that when people come to the shows they enjoy themselves. I’m not trying to get people’s sympathy or attention. I do this because I think its fuckin’ awesome. And so Epicloud is a record of that. There’s no drama. I’m not trying to illicit sympathy from the listeners. I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to fight an existential war within myself.” So how would Townsend himself view his new album? “This record, in a way, is a summary of the last four records that were very much trying to figure that shit out, right? It’s big, rockin’, and slightly, but not overtly, complicated music. If you’ve listened to what I do over the past 20 years, it won’t surprise you, but if you’re new to it, it’ll be a lot easier to digest than ‘Ziltoid.’”
If you have in fact listened to his output over the last 20 years, you would be able to easily say that it couldn’t be more varied. Aside from playing in bands throughout his teen years, Townsend’s first release into the musical world was 1993’s “Sex and Religion” which saw Townsend fronting guitar virtuoso Steve Vai as well as occupying a spot in The Wildhearts the following year. After quickly becoming disillusioned with the music industry, Townsend shifted his focus on a project of his own, Strapping Young Lad [aka SYL – ed.], who you could easily label as controlled musical chaos. SYL would exist for roughly 13 years and release 5 studio and one live album before hanging it up around 2007. This band of his wasn’t my first taste of Devin’s music, but it quickly became the one that I latched on to the most, possibly because their aural assault was just too addicting. Despite being the band that he is perhaps best known for, his view of it was a little surprising for this interviewer. “What I find funny about the whole Strapping Young Lad thing, and how people view it now, is there’s a real 20/20, rose-colored glasses with it,” states Townsend, deep in thought as he bounces around his thoughts on the band. “We couldn’t get arrested dude. We were there for [over] a decade. We played at 9 o’clock in the morning at Ozzfest and everybody’s looking at us like we’re wearing their clothes. And then now, ten years later [actually 6 – ed.], they think it was phenomenal. As an entity, you can only do it for a certain amount of time before you realize ‘this isn’t working for me anymore.’ And I think more than that, it’s important to make it clear how much the band and the music means to me. I think the reason it means something to you is the same reason it means something to me, it’s exactly what I felt like doing at the time.”
And he executed it rather well. The first listen of any of SYL’s earlier releases might coerce the listener to raise an eyebrow or instantly hit the stop button, but an in-depth listen can open you up to the unique blend that they were able to put together. Complicated riffs mixed with samples and synths, Devin’s maniac vocals, and the flawless drumming of Gene Hoglan made this band stand head and shoulders above their genre peers. But my hopes, and maybe even the hopes of SYL fans worldwide, are torn apart when I hear Devin bluntly explain that SYL will most likely be firm in the history books. “To do something for the sake of other people when you’re obviously in a different frame of mind is kind of martyr syndrome right? And I’m just not into being a martyr for anyone,” explains Townsend. A hard pill to swallow. My first SYL live experience came in early 2003 when the Art of Noise tour hit North America with Napalm Death, Nile, Dark Tranquillity, and The Berzerker just prior to the release of their self-titled 2003 album. Their performance was flawless and they all seemed to be having a great time. Then fast-forward to the later part of the same year when I was able to catch my second (and last) SYL performance while they were on the road with a unique bill consisting of themselves, Samael, and Cathedral. It was another flawless performance that left me physically exhausted following their set, but there was hardly anyone there. “I remember playing to 16 people on that tour,” reminisces Townsend before further explaining his decision to move on from SYL. “In hindsight, people view Strapping as this behemoth, but we couldn’t get arrested man. I needed to change my perspective on it as well. I didn’t want to destroy people anymore with music. It just became like a choice. That’s ultimately where we wound up. Especially between Gene and me, it was like just a difference of musical objectives. I love the guy and think he’s the world’s best drummer in a lot of ways, but it’s for whatever. Whether I quit doing drugs or have a kid…. People change. But the bottom line: making angry music makes me angry. Unless it plays a role in something I’m writing, I’m not an angry person. But I don’t like the feeling of being angry and I don’t want to feed that.”
At the end of the day though, Townsend is not only confident about his decisions, he’s happy. This night in Houston saw Townsend kick out one of his signature performances that is just short of sensory overload at times. The band are tight and everyone is having a great time as they rip through a wide range of tunes spanning Townsend’s career, with the exception of SYL. Whether he’s strumming an acoustic and singing or sawing away at a riff and deafening listeners with his unmistakable singing style, there will always be a flock of fans eager to watch his performance and get their hands on any audio he has a part in. At the very end of the day though, he’s just looking out for his interests and what he hopes to accomplish, and really isn’t concerned with anyone’s reactions. I could do my best to explain it, but Townsend basically did it for me when he looks me right in the eyes and states “The reason people like what I do is because I’m not lying to you. Whether its Strapping, or ‘Epicloud,’ or ‘The Hummer,’ or ‘Ziltoid,’ I’m not lying. You may not like it, it may not work for your musical sensibilities, and that’s fine, but it works for me. ‘Doing it for the fans’ is mostly rhetoric from people who are just addicted to that attention.”
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