Interview: Devin Townsend
In a similar way to how I'm happy to see how my process evolves, I’m happy to let the music evolve in the ways it’s meant to, because ultimately the people that support what I do generally do it because it’s coming from a place of some sort of authenticity.
The prolific mad scientist of progressive metal Devin Townsend makes the job of the interviewer incredibly easy, barely needing prompting to reel off one insightful anecdote after the other, smartly and eloquently. You realise, after a brief conversation and handful of questions later, that the topics to explore haven’t depleted over the course of the conversation, but multiplied. Peter Meinertzhagen had the pleasure of speaking to Devin Townsend not long after he’d finished a North American tour promoting his latest release, Transcendence, an album that evolved the sound he’s developed with the Devin Townsend Project band.
It has been noted with Transcendence that Townsend gave more freedom to the rest of the band to interpret his vision for the album, relinquishing some of the control that he may have kept on previous albums. Inevitably, it didn’t take very long until they started talking about Townsend’s creative process and how it changed for Transcendence.
Devin: Participating in interviews like this makes me realise just how long I’ve been doing it and oddly how much of my process has been documented over time. My goal has always been to actualise my creative thought in the most efficient way possible and sometimes it surprises me, as I go on, what works versus what was causing me problems in the past. It’s a lot less of a conscious decision to make changes to my process as much as it is a sort of intuitive next step.
(((o))): How much of this evolution in process is an attempt to keep things interesting?
Devin: It’s definitely a way of keeping things interesting. I think even subconsciously I do that. There’s an aspect of how I function in my day-to-day life that I think in the past, before I became aware of it, was really routed in sabotage. I would cause problems for myself and then write about those problems. It’s like the devil you know, you become comfortable with your suffering if it’s in a certain way and you just actualise these things so you can have something to sing ‘poor me’ about. Once you recognise a pattern, if you continue doing it, you just have to admit to yourself that you really enjoy that drama or you’re just irretrievably ignorant. I don’t think either of those apply to me, so I’m just moving into whatever the next stage is. Transcendence was a really good record for me as it offered, among other things, the inspiration that came with that evolution of process. It also offered, in a certain way, the end of it all, like the last page of that book. Next week I start a brainstorming session in a studio with an orchestrator and I have a ton of ideas. Recently, I’ve put myself in some new situations that are outside of my comfort zone, in relatively healthy ways that I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens now.
(((o))): Is this the symphony we’ve been hearing bits and pieces about?
Devin: I think that the next evolution of the process for me might simply be not defining what I do next. In my mind I have an idea for a symphony, but I have an idea in mind for a bunch of different projects. So, I think I’m just going to start writing. I’m going to be having the orchestrator with me so I can orchestrate a load of ideas. Straight-up symphony ideas, Casualties of Cool stuff, Devin Townsend Project stuff, and just see what happens. I’ve got a year before I start actually recording, so I hope that this brainstorm session will provide me a bunch of rather eloquent demos that I can really start to put the pieces together. Because I find that for myself and for my process I never really know what’s going on until it’s finished. I can start with a really good intention of ‘oh okay, this album is about this, that or the other thing’, but your subconscious motivations manifest themselves eventually, despite you. So, I’m just going to brainstorm now and feed the machine.
(((o))): What prompted you to start working with an orchestra?
Devin: I’ve never been a big fan of this whole wall of sound thing I’ve got going on. I mean, I like it, and it was the inevitable conclusion from the point of view of where I was in terms of technical acumen or technological limitations. You’ve got two speakers and there’s only so much you can fit in when that information wants to all happen at the same time without it turning into this compressed wall of sound. The idea of an orchestra and surround sound too, which is also the next step for me, is to try and articulate the thing I’ve always done but to get it right. To get it closer to that immersive effect I’ve been looking for rather than fatiguing people with walls of sound. I want to make a room with sound rather than a wall. I want to have four walls!
(((o))): Do you listen to a lot of classical music?
Devin: No, I have very little interest in it to be honest. I find that, from my limited understanding of classical music, it seems like three or four really compelling themes with a bunch of dynamic doodling in between. Maybe my palate isn’t refined enough to appreciate it, but I find it really fucking boring. I want to explore the things that make orchestral music compelling to me, but to try and make a typical orchestral piece, for one thing I’m not qualified, and secondly, I’m not interested. I want it to be something that is really a combination or hybrid of classical plus what it is that I do.
(((o))): In some ways I think your music could act as a gateway for people exploring classical music for the first time. As a listener, you might want to push the boundaries of your own tastes, looking for more and more in the music you listen to. I remember you saying that you found Stravinsky to be an inspiration for you?
Devin: If one were to look at heavy metal and its traditional formats, you would think that there would be no other option than to play it and sound like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, when it actually spans in whatever directions you feel like. Like Meshuggah, for example, or any band that’s using metal as an underlying dynamic for something that’s not typical to the genre. I think that classical music is much the same, you can take the things you like about classical music and then apply them. While Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was an inspirational piece of work for me, I’ve found more inspiration in soundtracks for movies like Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, or Interstellar. It’s orchestral music, but it’s got a visual counterpart and a lot of the classical stuff that people who are invested in the genre are more familiar with than I, was written at a time when there was no visual counterpart so it comes with painting a mental picture that I never had to learn how to do. When I see movies that have a sweeping score that really underlines the emotional impact of it, that’s what I really want to do. That’s the direction I’d like to go with classical as opposed to trying to convince people who are in the know about classical that somehow I’m proficient in it because I’m certainly not, I just follow instinct. I think that a lot of the times when people experiment with classical who aren’t necessarily classical musicians, there’s a tendency to be either avant-garde for the sake of it or trying to learn the format so that your actual musical ideas are stunted in an attempt to try and conform to what you hope people will respect you for.
(((o))): I think that’s the issue with the attempts of many of the musicians who have written classical music when they haven’t come from a classical music background – pieces by Paul McCartney and Sting jump to mind – they’re trying to make classical music for people who listen to classical music.
Devin: Exactly. At that point, you’re doing it so that you can be known as a high-brow musician. That’s obviously an assumption as I don’t know those two pieces specifically. I worked in Prague recently with the Philharmonic and I can see how one would fall into that as well because it’s intimidating. You have 75 people that all are proficient in music in ways you may not be, and you want to make sure they like it in some way. But ultimately orchestras are a tool and, as the beginning of this conversation went, my goal is not to appeal to a classical crowd, my goal is to get away from the limited vision that I’ve been able to represent the things that I hear in my head with in terms of strictly heavy metal sounds and two speakers to something that is immersive. And 75 musicians and 100 voices seems like it can only allow these visions to become clearer. At the end of it, it may just be yet another one of my records with a different production, or it could be an actual symphonic piece that has zero appeal to people that like traditional classical music. Regardless, it’s a direction in which I feel inevitably drawn to. I start next week and I’m going to go into it without thinking about or listening to classical music.
(((o))): You probably don’t know this yet, but is this music you envisage being played in a concert hall or only to be recorded?
Devin: I’m at a stage in my career now that I feel confident in saying ‘we’ll see’. I have a theme that I find really compelling that seems to have as its underlying reason for being this kind of petulant need to make it the biggest thing ever. With the point of it, the theme of it, being that it’s all fundamentally pointless. But there’s also a part of me that recognises that if that’s the endgame of this project then you already know you don’t need to spend a million dollars making that point because the only point you’re making is for yourself, right? I think that’s still routed in that kind of rebelliousness that I just find tiring now. If you’re using orchestras and arenas and musicians to prove a point about how you think it’s all a waste of time, that’s a lot of work if that’s true. It’s like ‘I feel that everything’s a waste of time therefore I’m just going to kill myself making this crazy statement about it’. It just seems like at that point you’re just sadistic or masochistic. So that was my original theme. When that started to fade away a bit, I realised I needed to go through that process to see what laid behind it. I think that if I’m being honest with myself, the goal is to make something that’s really refined. When I was away last week I had the opportunity to listen to some of my past work and some of it is so childish, I can’t get over it. At one point this was something that I felt the need to say and it so doesn’t make any sense to me anymore. I mean I understand it, and I understand how it’s resulted in me being the character that I am now, and for that I think it’s really important. But the lesson I think I learnt from that, that does to the process the same things including the band on Transcendence did to the process, is that lyrically and conceptually now it’s not about me. It’s not about my trip, it’s about writing music and not using music as a vehicle for my neurosis. I think it’ll be interesting to see how it all comes together. My original thought of working with the choir and the orchestra was that it takes me out of the equation. That’s why I liked Casualties of Cool or working with Anneka; whenever I sing, just by virtue of my singing, I think I’m going to say a bunch of personal embarrassing shit. So getting other people to sing allows me to participate in music without that being my theme. The ‘Me Show’ starring ‘Me’. At first I thought ‘well, if you get an orchestra, make it operatic, and get singers and different languages and all this sort of stuff, you can participate in these vibrations without it being your own trip’. But I think there’s been a corner turn somewhere along the line for me recently where I don’t know if that’s what I would write about now. I think I may have turned some page here where I could perhaps make something a little more inclusive thematically. Who knows? We’ll see next week.
(((o))): You’ve said surround sound, along with working with an orchestra, is one of the next things for you. Are there any interesting recent examples of music mixed in surround sound you’ve found particularly helpful or inspiring?
Devin: In a similar way to classical and the ways in which things are defined as being correct or not, I’ve heard things that are really cool, but not the way I want to do it. How I want to do it is to make a kind of audio theatre that allows the experience to be immersive. I went to Belgium recently to the Galaxy studio and they have this 21:1 surround setup which you mix in theatre and it’s so great. They played a whole bunch of stuff for me, like a bunch of deadmau5 remixes and other things that are in surround and it’s truly really cool, but more so than ‘oh, I’d do it like that’. It’s just inspiring to me because I’m like ‘well, I had two speakers and now I have five, this is great’. It’s not ‘how do I do this’, it’s like ‘let’s just do this’. I’ve got a home studio setup with surround sound and I hope to mix projects at Galaxy as well and I think more than anything else it’ll be the effects for me, just finding ways to make the whole thing not a wall of sound but getting the same effect. An orchestra plays into it in exactly the same way as opposed to saying ‘well, I want to do a budget version of the Rite of Spring’, it’s like, ‘I haven’t gotten it right so far so let’s see if we can up the production value here by using these other tools I now have access to’.
(((o))): I struggle to name many musicians that switch genres and styles quite as much as you do, with your music being filed in categories such as prog, extreme metal, pop, country, dark ambient, and maybe next even orchestral. What plays into this desire to switch styles? Do your own listening habits reflect this?
Devin: I think that the first thing I would say is that it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, routed in a need to be provocative or a need to try and be this guy that does multiple styles. I think it’s much simpler than that. I grew up listening to many different styles of music and I still do. I have very short attention span when it comes to my own output. Well, maybe not a short attention span, but I’ll do something to the exclusion of everything else with such manic ferocity that when I’m finished, I don’t want to hear anything like it again. I’ll finish a pop-sounding record and then the next thing is inevitably going to be heavy or quiet because I’m sick of pop. And then I’ll do something really quiet and then when I’ve finished that I’m sick of being quiet so I’ll do something loud and complicated. Then after complicated I’ll want to do something simple. Everything is a reaction to what’s happened before. In a similar way to how I’m happy to see how my process evolves, I’m happy to let the music evolve in the ways it’s meant to, because ultimately the people that support what I do generally do it because it’s coming from a place of some sort of authenticity, so if the way that it’s manifesting is dark ambient, well then it’s honest, it’s just a different face of the same thing.