A multifaceted, multi-talented and sometimes misunderstood individual, Devin Townsend has had an illustrious career. Coming to prominence as the singer on Steve Vai’s 1993 ‘Sex & Religion’ album, he’s since gone on to successfully plough his own musical furrow with among others; Strapping Young Land, Ocean Machine and the Devin Townsend Project. We caught up with the Canadian at Ramblin’ Man Fair, where latest project Casualties Of Cool were on the bill, to discuss his career. Deep down into the pain: Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Devin, what better place to interview you than under a tree?!
It’s so good. I’m such a hippie. I’m trying to figure out which Devin Townsend should be the one that stands up. It seems like the personality is so transient, man, it’s like, some days I’m like; “oh I want this, or I want that”, but I think ultimately, this would be involved in any one of the personalities - sat under a tree.
You’re here today with Casualties Of Cool. You’ve been working on that project for a while, haven’t you?
Yes, sir. It took a long time and I think the thing I like so much about it is the fact that there’s no pressure. Like it’s been, since the beginning of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to write without any expectation. Casualties, no one had any interest in it, so it was something I was able to write slowly. So when it was finally done, it was done exactly how it was supposed to be done. I spent all the time making it right, and that lack of pressure resulted in something that was really authentic, I think.
The Casualties Of Cool album comes across as being something like ‘ambient country’. Would that be a good way to put it?
I like to think of it as like a cross between some sort of old school country music, and like ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ or something, you know what I mean? I really like the idea of like a horror movie, but with that really quite, sort of undertone. That’s kind of what Casualties is supposed to be; it’s supposed to be really like not cool; it’s like it’s like comforting enough to sleep to, but it’s not like a warm fuzzy feeling.
You mentioned your multiple personalities; your fans tend to be accepting of almost anything you put out though, right?
Oh it’s great. Could I put something out that they weren’t into? Well I could if I wasn’t completely invested in it. It’s like even DTP, which I kind of ran out of gas for, and I really put so much f*****g effort trying to build a gas tank for [new album] ‘Transcendence’, by stepping out of the comfort zone and trying different things and giving up the control. And as a result of it, it was really difficult to make, but the end result is something that is totally invested in. So, I think as long as that remains, then that’s why people will still dig it, because it’s coming from a place of like; well that’s what I needed to do. Even ‘Z²’ where I was so out of gas man, oh my god, I didn’t want to make that thing at all, but I really worked hard to make it the best I could make it. So by the end of it, I was psyched on it.
Going back to the start of your career, and how did your hooking up with Steve Vai come about?
I had made a demo that ultimately found its way into the hands of Steve because we had affiliations with a similar label, and I just kind of got a call out of the blue. It’s like one of those things that you wouldn’t expect to happen. I think I’m probably simplifying it; I think in hindsight there was a lot more going on between us, but for the sake of it being like a romantic story, let’s go with that.
Yes, let’s go with the romantic version.
[Speaking dramatically] I was working in a restaurant, slaving away and I got a phone call from Steven Vai, inviting me to leave my mundane world and fly down to Los Angeles and join him on musical quest that would last me for the rest of my life. Yes, I took a moment and replied to the affirmative, and the rest is where we’re at now.
In many ways, the Vai album was a defining one for you. What memories do you have from that period?
Yeah, it took me a little while to not be a - well I was still a peckerhead, but I think at the time I was like a f*****g nineteen year old peckerhead, and I didn’t know how to articulate my discontent. So, like I took a shit in his guitar case at one point, and he was really like; “why the f**k would you do that?!” I mean, I had no reasonable answer, other than: [in a zombie-like voice] “Devin upset, Devin not happy”.
And why were you unhappy?
Oh, some nineteen year old thing, I mean I don’t know, maybe I didn’t get enough cake or something. But you know, it’s like we worked on those things, and now Steve and I are really good friends. That doesn’t come up often: “Hey, do you remember when I took a dump in your guitar case? Pass the stuffing”!
Aside from the Vai album, you sang on one track on Steve’s 1996 ‘Fire Garden’ release.
I didn’t know I had until he put it out. It was just outtakes. I haven't heard it; well, I may have heard it, but not enough to remember it. The record came out and I was like; “oh, I’m on this one. That’s pretty cool!”
You know these whole things, these interactions and music in general, art or whatever, you’ve kind of just got to roll with it, whether or not it’s Steve, or me doing vocals for my own thing or other people, or any interactions that I may have had with anybody I work with. It’s like; it’s a really bizarre thing. I’m very fortunate to be able to do it, and I don’t think I’m smart enough to understand it, so I tend to just kind of like try and roll with it, and then sometimes it’s like; “oh, I guess we’re at The Royal Albert Hall. This is super f*****g bizarre”.
You’ve had one hell of a career for someone who’s just rolling with it.
Exactly, I know dude. I mean, yeah, you’re totally right, and I don’t look it in the mouth at all, it’s just I try not to think about it - it’s too weird, if you know what I mean. I keep trying to make music that like, really works for me, and hope that it works for other people, but in order to maintain that sort of authenticity, it requires me to try and sort of ignore the rest of the shit [music that has gone before]. Last night it was like super f*****g weird; at three thirty in the morning I’m like; “what the f**k am I doing with my life, man? This stuff is insane!” And then all of a sudden it’s like seven o’clock and I'm like; “breakfast. All right”!
I’m guessing that that’s in part down to the bipolar thing?
Well, I mean the bipolar thing ended up being more of the result of taking a bunch of acid than it was anything else. You know, I haven’t been on bipolar medication, or taking drugs or have drank, in like a decade. And even though I’ve got mood swings, it’s not like bipolar mood swings; it’s just maybe I shouldn’t be doing drugs, right?
One of the things that struck me from seeing you perform live is that, even if you didn’t like the music, you can’t not like your positive and upbeat onstage persona.
That’s wicked, I’ll take it man. I mean, I don’t even like a bunch of the shit that I write, but it’s what comes out of me, so I just roll with it. The whole career is something that you’ve got to take with a grain of salt. Like, what I’m trying to provide people is not like the key to the universe, it’s like at the end of my process of being me; that shit comes out, so here it is, and it’s got a puppet.
And people love that.
Yeah, hopefully, I mean, I want to contribute something positive, I really do. I don’t want to just fill the world with more bullshit, so hopefully by trying to not give up, it goes somewhere. I think that’s really what it comes down to; to not give up takes a lot of work, right, but I’m forty-four and I’m still held on there, right?
So where are you headed next?
We [Devin Townsent Project] did this ‘Transcendence’ record that’s really, really good. And we got a bunch of touring coming up, just a shit load of touring, and I’ve still got to get the garage clean; my short term plans and my long term plans are fairly intermingling. But the record comes out in September, and it’s really good, which after this long is great. It takes more effort to be excited by it, but if you’re willing to invest the effort, it’s still really, really good.
Those hard core fans are chomping at the bit to hear it.
That’s very kind of them man, and as a result of that I don’t phone it in, you know? This Casualties Of Cool for example, came very naturally to me, but to get to what DTP wants to be, I’ve got to dig a little deeper than that, because when I started that it was fifteen years ago. But because it means something to a lot of people, and because people have been so generous to me to allow me to keep doing it, I think it’s only fair that you really push yourself so that you can make that music and not just phone it in.
Devin Townsend Project's 'Transcendence' is released on 9th September.