Devin Townsend has been riding the ocean machine since coming to prominence as a member of Steve Vai’s Vai band back in 1993. A prolific shapeshifter, he’s since led Strapping Young Lad, went country with Casualties of Cool, and fronted his own Devin Townsend Project. Recently crowned the ‘Riff Lord’ at the annual Metal Hammer Golden Gods awards, he’s readying a return to the UK to headline the Prog stage at this years’ Ramblin Man Fair festival in Maidstone, Kent. We caught up with Devin to discuss life, music, and Ziltoid the Omniscient. Here and now; Norrie Kivlehan.
Hi Devin, you recently attended the Golden God's Awards in London; how did that go?
It was good. I got an award for ‘Riff Lord’, or Mr. Riff Lord to you, please. It was cool because on some level these award ceremonies exist to rationalise the industry existing for another year; it's the people within the industry awarding other people within it, right? But I guess it's the same in any industry, and the fact that our genre exists with a lot of good people, everybody supports each other.
You released your ‘Transcendence’ album last year; is there any kind of concept behind it?
It's just random songs I burst out, but I think an over-arching theme to that was probably the idea of control; the idea of how much my need to control others, and all aspects of what I do is rooted in insecurity more than anything else. If you invest too much of your personality into what it is that you do verses who you are, it's a dangerous game. Letting go of that control through the mixing and writing was subconsciously aimed at getting to the next plateau for me, hence the name 'Transcendence'.
So it was a stepping-stone within your life?
Yeah, exactly. Things are perpetually dark [in the world] right now, so I was trying to make something that was a positive statement. When things get politically as crazy as they are, it seems to be the reaction of a lot of people in heavy music is to be pissed off. I'm starting to get to the point where it doesn't help me to rage about something that I can't do anything about. Focusing on the better half is something you can do, if you can provide people a bit of respite from that. That was kind of the intention.
You've been touring the album for quite a while; what has been your most memorable part of this tour?
We did Download the other day, and that was nice. I don't tend to think of tours in those kind of milestones. It's more about just making sure every night is as good as it can be. I have to spend a fair amount of time trying to get my throat to work and maintain that, so that takes up a lot of my energy.
You’ve been open about your mental health in the past; how do you manage to keep positive and on top of work?
I try to find time on my own. That helps. I find that a lot of my neurosis evolved from being really sensitive to my environment; so a lot of sounds, smells, strange conversations - it's not like I can't handle it, but I'm very aware of it and it can be really distracting.
So you suffer from a sensory overload?
Always, exactly. I tend to support my mental health by knowing what's good for me, and a lot of time that's just being on my own. I try to exercise a lot because it's a place to 'put' that free-floating anxiety. It's the same mechanism that can go into spiraling down negative avenues. It’s something that can be utilised as productive, especially at this age and in this job. I also try to meditate. Other than that, it just takes a type of resilience that I think is learned more than anything else. You push forward and you don't give yourself a choice.
For someone who has been very open about social anxiety, is your grotesque sense of humour a way of filtering out people who you think may judge you?
I don’t think that's my reason. I mean, I'm not doing it purposefully. I think fundamentally, the species is really under-evolved. We try to find meaning in our chaotic void. I use the toilet humour thing just because you can really confuse people! And well, I just think it's funny. You know, I'm suspicious of people who don't think it's funny! It's like, just because it's so dumb, it's so gross. A funny thing with my career is that I spend a lot of time having to explain why I think certain ways, like; “Why do you think toilet humour is funny?” You have to explain it a lot of times, like; “Why did you write this?” And I'm like; "I don't fucking know!".
So, for example, your ten-million dollar 'Cock Symphony' proposal to Sony Music?
Yeah! People are like; "Why would you do that?". If you need me to explain it I'm sure I can kind of draw it back to some sort of neurosis again or whatever, but ultimately I just think it's fucking funny and interesting. It's creatively really free if you've got a topic that's abstract enough that there's no parameters for it. I think the real base humour stuff, if you can articulate it in a way that has a lot of attention paid to it, it's like; 'dumb shit done really well'.
Is writing music something you still very much enjoy doing, or is it something you have to do to keep sane?
I don't write the same way that I used to, for sure. I find that now the experiences coagulate into much more tangible emotions that I can document somehow. So when I do start writing, it's a much different process than it used to be. I used to write all day, every day.
Even since your Strapping Young Lad days?
Well, up until four or five years ago. But my interests have gone in different directions now, just life-wise; like different hobbies and different things that I'm interested in. But that allows me to be really efficient when it is time to write. I think I achieve about the same amount now, but it's not done with the same sort of flippancy. I do really enjoy writing, I really enjoy playing, and I really enjoy music; it has just become part of me now.
One of your most recognizable creations is Ziltoid; have you and fan and Metalocalypse creator Brendon Small ever spoken about a bringing Ziltoid to life?
We've never talked about Ziltoid in that capacity. He has mentioned to me that he took inspiration from Ziltoid for the Galaktikon [‘audio comic book’ album] thing. But the main thing is; I don't care. It's not that I don't like the concept, or that I don't like the characters, it's just that I'm not compelled to take it further than it has been. I think that’s the risk with these kind of things; you find something that's interesting, and then you have a team of people who end up monetising it, and by the end of it, the fun is sucked out of it because it becomes this job.
So is that the end for Zildoid?
Making a Ziltoid cartoon on top of all the stuff I'm already doing is 'work'. I think we’re going to make a video game though, so that's something. There's a Swedish company that presented some ideas, and it seems really cool.
You released your autobiography ‘Only Half There’ in 2016; did you read back through it after you’d finished it?
I've tried, but it hits a little close to home. I didn't spend too much time second-guessing it, which is kind of my trip. I did a book reading in Australia a couple of weeks back, and I found it very difficult because it was putting a voice to my thoughts in front of an audience. It implies a level of arrogance, or a sense that because I wrote it, that I think it's 'important', which I don't. It was an opportunity that came up that seemed to make sense in the grand scheme of things.
Do fans like to know who they're looking up to, to get beneath the surface of who you are?
I think it helps in a sense; that if you can be vulnerable publicly, that it may remove the stigma from it being a 'weakness', rather than 'in order to get to the next step' in life or emotionally. The lack of ability to be such is more a weakness than anything else, that you can be scared to be open.
Moving on, and can you tell us anything about the reunion with Steve Vai?
We're doing the Starmus festival in Trondheim in Norway. It's for Stephen Hawking's birthday, which is awesome. We're doing 'Truth' with an orchestra, we're doing a song from 'Sex & Religion', and then Steve's playing 'Supercrush!' with me and his band, and then we're doing stuff with Grace Potter. It's only four songs I think. It's indicative of a lot. It's just to be there, and because it's been so many years since we've performed together.
Finally, what is next for you?
There's a lot of touring. I've been writing a symphony and I've been writing a bunch more of DTP stuff. But to be perfectly honest, I've been trying to work on myself in ways that I've never done before. The closer I get to centring myself, the less I have to say, in a weird way. I guess the closer I get to my goals, the less I have to say. We'll see where that is; hopefully it's good for work.
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Devin Townsend Project headline the Prog In The Park stage at Ramblin' Man Fair festival in Maidstone, Kent on 30th July. For ticketing, and further information, visit RamblinManFair.com.