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Interview: Devin Townsend


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It’s honestly difficult to know where to begin when talking about progressive rock veteran Devin Townsend.

The Devin Townsend Project

Over the course of a more than two-decade-long career, the multi-tasking maestro has been involved, one way or another, in almost 80 albums, either as a major contributor, producer, special guest, songwriter or otherwise.

He’s been the lead singer for renowned guitarist Steve Vai, led the acclaimed death metal outfit Strapping Young Lad, made an insane 17 solo records (one of which, Ziltoid the Omniscient (2007), is about an alien that goes to war with the Earth because he hates our coffee) and once sold a spatula on eBay for over $100.

“I put it up for 99¢ and it sold for $100,” the rock icon recalls of the fateful kitchen utensil. “The guy who bought it, he’s in the States, he comes to a lot of the shows and it’s funny. I’ve signed that thing six times now. Every time, he brings the spatula.”

The enigmatic Canadian’s zaniness and productivity are rivalled only by his musical versatility, with his albums ranging from extreme metal on entries like Alien (2005) and City (1997) to calming ambience on Devlab (2004) and The Hummer (2006).

“I like to think that each record that I’ve put out during a certain frame of mind and at a certain age define that age for me,” Devin explains of his audial variety.

“But the experience can be coloured by any number of external circumstances and stimulus: the people who are involved, the studio that you’re in, your level of technical acumen, your ability to focus during that particular period in your life, whatever. It’s all gonna give it colour and make it perfectly imperfect, I guess.

“But it starts with trying to articulate that emotional component. I think I’ve always been able to do it to a certain extent. Whether or not I get it as close to the mark as some other records is ultimately… you know, you’re closer sometimes if you are honest, for any number of reasons. I think I find them all really challenging but, to be fair, I don’t think any art worth paying attention to comes without effort.”

As a result, Devin Townsend is not someone that considers himself a traditional metal musician, but rather an artist that uses heavy music, in his own words, as a “dynamic”: merely one tool at his disposable. But an important tool nonetheless.

“I think that [heavy metal] is recognised as being something that potentially can be very brilliant,” Townsend explains, “And I think it has an emotional authenticity to it that, strangely, when I first started listening to metal, I never thought it could be perceived as having.

“When compared to a lot of what’s popular now, there’s no comparison: the artistry that goes into it is heads and tails above a lot of the country and pop and even jazz that is out there. So I think that it was only a matter of time for people to recognise that. I think it took the genre becoming ‘middle-aged’ for people to see that it isn’t just rooted in petulance.

“But I don’t really listen to much metal anymore,” he continues.

“I mean, I check out what’s going on with new Meshuggah, Gojira, Periphery, Ihsahn, The Sword, Mastodon or High on Fire… whatever! I listen to as much as I can to keep up with it. Whether or not I still listen for the music or just to see what friends are doing, regardless, I listen to it for that. But when it comes to who I like best, I don’t know if I’d even put it into that category anymore to be fair.”

Despite his admiration for the music, a big aspect of Townsend’s self-distancing from the metal mainstream seems to be its image and its following of stereotype.

“It’s the bands that adhere to that same sort of format that looked popular in the early ‘80s: you know, middle-aged dudes with long hair and leather jackets with a Venom backpatch,” he says.

“It’s not even that I dislike it, it’s just that in some sense that’s what is expected from heavy music from the people that are still on the fence about accepting it whatsoever. When you get stereotypes of any genre, like the guy in the cowboy hat for country music or the goth kid with the emo haircut, it’s like any scene that has a stereotype: it’s hard to get past that for most people. Sometimes I find that when the metal scene sticks to that stereotype, it’s more difficult to have an accepting of something that has a real originality behind it.

“There are some people that are really into heavy metal that say ‘Hey, you are not a traditional heavy metal guy and therefore we don’t accept you as a metal musician.’ That happens, and my reaction to that is ‘Well that’s fine. I’m not heavy metal then’,” Devin laughs.

“If I can’t be invited into that party, it makes no difference to my creative process. Heavy metal is a dynamic that I’m proud to be able to include in my creative process because I think it brings things to the table that no other musical style can. That’s why I use it, not because I wanna fit in anywhere.”

And in 2017, Devin Townsend will tour the UK with two other bands that match his world view of experimenting with and expanding upon the traditional notion of heavy metal: TesseracT and Leprous, both of which Townsend himself picked to join him on the road.

“I try to make my choices not only based upon the ones that I respect as musicians, but also people that I think will give the audience a good experience,” he begins.

“Something that is, luckily, in the same genre, but offers up three variations of that. I think it’ll be a really interesting show to go to, but still, I hate going to shows.

“I think I have social anxiety, on some level. I think because I’ve had a career of doing this in such a public way that it’s like going to work for me. It’s like if you work at a great restaurant, there’s a good chance that on your day off you’re not going to eat there.

“So when I do go, I want to see something that is not just your standard metal bands. I want to see something that has a bit of variation to it and that’s what I believe our choices for these tours hopefully end up bringing.”

The experimental trio of Townsend, TesseracT and Leprous will begin touring in March, which gives British fans about four months to try their best to wrap their minds around the headliner’s immensely large discography.

Devin Townsend’s latest album, Transcendence, is available physically and digitally now via InsideOut Music. Read our review of it here.

Devin Townsend will be touring the UK with TesseracT and Leprous in March 2017.

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