Still Seeking Out “Uncharted Territory”: Devin Townsend Talks Seriousness, Humour and “Interesting” Art

By Laura Wiebe; Live photo by Adam Wills

Remember the Power 30 – the 90s half hour metal show broadcast on Canada’s music television network MuchMusic? Many male metal fans of a certain vintage fondly recall the Power 30 for its attractive VJ, Teresa Roncon. I remember Roncon too – I wanted her job and she told me they’d have to carry her out in a pine box. But sometimes the show’s guest hosts made a more powerful impression (if you’ll pardon the pun). Sometime in the summer of 1993, I tuned into the Power 30 for what I imagined would be a regular weekday episode. Instead, I met Devin Townsend.

It was a TV world meeting in the virtual sense, of course. At that time, Townsend appeared in the rock/metal spotlight as a front man, and I’d already heard his voice on Steve Vai’s newly released Sex & Religion album. Townsend sounded like a maniacal musical force, in the best of ways – and looked it too (see the video for “Down Deep Into the Pain”.

As a guest host, that slightly crazy/brilliant vitality persisted, but the humour that inflects even his most serious performances got a chance to shine through as well. I think Vai was there co-hosting along with him, but I can’t say for sure. Townsend’s character made such an impression that his presence is all I can attest to for certain.

Fast forward through the rest of Devin Townsend’s decade and into the next. Even at high speed it’s hard to miss the range and depth of his inspiration and multi-faceted talent: guitar playing on Front Line Assembly’s Millennium; fronting the infamous Strapping Young Lad; driving solo(ish) efforts like Ocean Machine,the Physicist, Infinity and Terria records; concocting the Devin Townsend Band; diverting into oddities and experimentation like Punky Brüster, Synchestra, and Ziltoid the Omniscient…

… And now, over a two-year span, the musical madness has returned in full force. His latest recorded ventures – the four-album Devin Townsend Project “tetralogy” –mine the man’s creative past and step beyond it, ever reaching toward new ground. The latest of these records hit Canadian stores this past June. And the day after Deconstruction and Ghost were released, I had the chance to speak with Townsend himself.

The bulk of our conversation focused not so much on his latest records (though that inevitably came up) but instead on his studio work. As Hevy Devy fans know, Townsend’s “wall of sound” production is as distinctive as every other aspect of his performance.

The resulting Exclaim feature gave me the chance to highlight how Townsend views writing and recording music as interdependent steps in a single process. But our conversation lasted much longer than one article could capture. Thanks to Hellbound, here are some of the interview tidbits that the Music School piece couldn’t hold.

Talking to Townsend, I learned that recording technologies become part of his musical instrument pallet rather than representing a fully distinct pool of gear. “When you say ‘making music,’ I think that’s part of it,” he explains. “I can see how people who are just singer/songwriters or whatever don’t have that sort of connection to the recording end of it.”

When I suggested that perhaps Townsend experiences a different relationship with technology from what might be common in the singer/songwriter genre, he responded, “And maybe to music as well.”

“Technology has always been something that I’ve had an interest in but almost purely the interest was getting from Point A to Point B. As a result of that I’ve never been one for options in the studio. I find and have found things in the past over the years that work for me in order to actualize the ideas that come into my head.

“The things that I do now, I want them to be consistently really good, so for vocals I know I’ve got this one fancy unit that works really well for me. And when it comes time to sing, you plug that in and there’s your vocals. I’ve got two microphones that I know work for me, and a preamp that does consistently what I need it to do – and then I move on. I suppose in that way my connection to technology has been very much a beeline from the creative source to having other people hear it. Maybe that’s a difference between what I do and a casual singer/songwriter.”

Listening to Townsend’s music you might imagine that every note is meticulously preselected, each interconnection sketched out as part of some elaborate master plan. Surprisingly, it’s not that exact a science.

“I go into the studio with skeletons,” he explains. “Well, they’re actually pretty fleshed out, not just complete bones – but I find I’m leaving myself opportunities to improvise. And although a lot of my music doesn’t come across as improvisational at all (I don’t think), how it gets to that point has a lot of improvisation.

“For years I used to just write it all completely and do these elaborate demos and kind of work in my head a lot, and when I finally went to record it was more putting in the hours and getting it down, rather than enjoying the process, and letting it be what it wants to be. I think in a lot of cases it worked out fine and the songs from that era sound like they should, in the same way that songs from this era sound like they should.

“But I don’t drink or anything, so when I’m in the studio it’s nice for me to have moments of spontaneity that keep it interesting, and keep it so it’s not just like a ‘tag B into slot A’ kind of process.”

As Townsend draws us into his musical scientist’s lab and the strangely interesting things that go on there, I choose to let the remainder of the interview unfold on its own terms…

Do you still produce other people?

Not anymore. I spent two or three years doin’ it and it did my head in, to be honest.

I mean, I like the process. I like helping people get their ideas across. But I guess what didn’t realize when I first got into production was how much of it is the psychological aspect of the people you’re working with.

A lot of the bands that I started working with were younger dudes, very talented a lot of them – some of them weren’t but a lot of them really were – and what I found the majority of my job ended up being was micromanaging other people’s emotional connection to music and in a lot of cases their hang-ups about it.

And it works – I think the records that I did do with other people ended up being, in a certain sense, like a period piece of where the band was at the time, what they wanted to represent, and how their relationships, internally, led them to the conclusions, musically, that they chose to write. But after a while, I’m just like, I’m over this, man. I got a kid at home. Last thing I wanna do is try and convince the singer that he’s playing the drummer’s song, or whatever. It became a little taxing.

How much do you bring other people into your recording process?

Depends on the record. Some records none. Some records it’s based on that. Some records, the skeleton I spoke of earlier in the studio actually exists in the rehearsal period, and then it kind of fleshes itself out by the vibe and the intention of the group of people that are collected.

I think I’m a social person to a certain degree. When I’m not working I definitely couldn’t be bothered, but when I’m working I do like to share the experience with people. And in doing so there’s definitely some magic that can happen from the cooperation, and sometimes in some situations, the drama that exists between people too. So it all varies, right? Like every record that I’ve done. I’ve done 20, 25 records over my career, some of them very insular and some of them are very communal, and it all depends on what, I guess, that period of time wants to put across.

In metal, you’re especially known for having a “wall of sound” quality to your recordings because there’s so much going on. Is this a deliberate effect you’re trying to achieve? Part of the emotion – getting that across to people?

I think if I said that it would make me feel like I was doing it on purpose. To be honest, though, I’ve always heard things happening at the same time, musically, since the very beginning. To me… I’ll hear something and then there will be another melody, and then there will be a counter melody on top of that, and then some movement there, and blah-blah-blah. I think that comes from a real love of classical type of things.

In some senses it works really well, but in other senses it definitely confuses the listeners, especially if it’s all working from the same frequency range. But I think that in the future, specifically after having finished these four records, now it’s important for me to make a change in terms of that sort of wall of sound type of trip. But you know, best laid plans, right? We’ll see what happens.

Well, it does have the benefit of making the kind of record that offers more to people over time…

Yeah, and I appreciate that, but the flip side of that coin is it also has the benefit of ostracizing people from the very first note, right? But, I mean, in all honesty, the reason for doing what I do is the same now as it’s always been. God, I’d love to be able to figure out what the definition of that is, but whatever it is, it’s the same now as what it was, and the one the one thing I can say that I know it isn’t – it’s definitely not made with the intention of makin’ friends or trying to be a part of some sort of clique, right? Like, I do what I do because it seems appropriate, and if it doesn’t work out, well, then, at least it’s honest.

[Slight diversion while Townsend denies any conscious Phil Spector influence and we try, without getting very far, to communicate at the level of 1960s girl group knowledge…]

Are there significant differences for you in how you record something huge, like Deconstruction, versus a quieter record, like Ghost?

Well, I think the process is pretty much identical. It’s just, the thing is with the different records, each part has a different approach. There’s sometimes where what really needs to be focused on in order to make it make sense to me – I say that loosely, because although Deconstruction makes perfect sense to me I realize that it makes very little sense to a lot of people. In order for it to make sense to me, we’ll say…

I start with the kick drum and then move to the snare and then move to the toms and then move to the cymbals and really be conscious of how each element of it interacts. And then once I’ve made sure that works well frequency range wise, and it’s affecting my compressor correctly, and there’s no offensive frequencies, then I’ll move to the guitars.

And then, because I know there’s – say in this situation, there’s ten melodies, and a lot of the melodies are doubled by guitar. It’s important for me with the main guitars to scoop the frequencies so you can slot in all these other things. If you’ve got ten guitars that are all full frequency it just turns into mush, right? But you can kind of trick the ear by carving a bunch of the low mids out of the main guitar and putting a high-pass filter on it, so it gets rid of a lot of low end and that way the bass can fit in without fighting for space, and then you go to the bass and it’s the same thing, you know, make sure there’s a solid thing but keep it in a place so that it doesn’t interfere with the rest.

And then melody one, and then melody two, and then vocals, and then by the end of it, it sounds like a really, hopefully, really clear yet claustrophobic kind of piece but you can pick things out of it… Like you can hear that cymbal, you can hear the high hat, you can hear that second melody.

And a lot of that has to do with panning too. If you’ve got three vocal melodies, if you pan them all hard left and right up the middle with a shit load of echo on it, it’s gonna turn into mud. But if you EQ the high vocals so there’s more high end, and the mid vocals so there’s more mid, and low so there’s more low, and panned one of them hard right, and the other one at 11 o’clock and the other one at two o’clock and then you know the effect that you end up getting after a while is pretty much the same every time. But the most important thing is that you’re able to discern what’s going on and those tricks are what keep it clear.

And with a record like Ghost it’s the exact same process. It’s just not as dense per capita, right? Like a song on Ghost, “Heart Baby” – it sounds like there’s very little going on but there’s dozens of vocals, there’s dozens of tracks. And just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean I can relax, god knows, on the mix, because if I did it would just turn into this big blurry mellow thing. So the process is the same, but you have to keep in mind what it is that you’re trying to make people feel.

You recorded live orchestra and choir for Deconstruction…?

Yeah, I went to Prague in Czech Republic, and I hired the Philharmonic Orchestra, much to my family’s chagrin. And I went in there with an absolute ton of music and I didn’t have the money to do it really properly, but they did a real good job. And it was really gratifying to hear all these professional musicians play my stupid music.

After that we went to Den Bosch in the Netherlands, and then with the choir – a bunch of professional choral musicians who were far and away kind of confused by singing about cheeseburgers and flatulence and all that sort of thing. But at the same time, I thought, ‘you know what, I’m in no position that this is ever going to be more than an oddity, and so, who knows if I’ll get the chance to do this again.’ And it’s costing me, personally, the money – no label was paying for it. ‘I’m paying for it myself, so if I’m going to do this, dammit, let’s just do a cannon ball and let’s make it the most absurd thing possible.

Three of the sopranos, they’re probably 45 or 50 year old ladies – there’s this one part in one song where I’ve got this choral singing about you know, farting, and cheeseburgers, and masturbating, and all this sort of other stuff, and they were just like wide-eyed, and said, ‘why would you write this?’ I don’t know… it just seems to be, on some kind of Monty Python-esque sort of point in my head, I think, ‘how could this not be the most awesome thing ever to have tons of professional musicians put in the position to do this absurd music?’

I said to some one after, the other day, what will it say on my tomb stone? It will probably say, ‘well, I thought it was funny.’

With Deconstruction, you have a lot of people hear those elements of it and think, well, it’s like puerile, or have a juvenile connection to it, and yeah, for sure. But really, more than anything else it’s just about freedom for me at this point. I like taking the piss out of people who take things seriously. And it’s not because I don’t take what I do seriously, but a lot of times with heavy metal, it’s such a ludicrous type of music to begin with that it’s easy to lose sight of what it is you’re actually trying to put across, what it is that you’re trying to do.

And then when I started working with the orchestra and with the choir… I mean, I think I’m a pretty solid musician, and I understand melodically and harmonically exactly what I want – like there’s no questions, right? With these people I find there’s a lot of people that have a lot of themselves invested in what they’re doing, like, ‘well, I’m the classical guy, you can tell by my beret.’ Or, ‘I’m the person that understands the relationship between intervals and I don’t listen to anything that isn’t melodically aligned,’ or what have you.

So I think somewhere during the process I was just like, ‘this is stupid. C’mon, let’s just have some freedom.’ And part of that freedom was hopefully making a statement about how unimportant any of this really is in the long run.

Is there a visual element in your head to go along with the sounds that you’re creating?

I would say almost equal to musical side of it. The problem, of course, is I’m a terrible visual artist. If I’m working with a graphic artist, and they say, ‘so what do you want this record to look like?’ I’ll beak off a bunch of colours and vibes, and ‘it’s like a rainy day but sad and then there’s this element of melancholy and I see something to do with icebergs and you know, and then over there there’s a tree, and it’s a certain type of tree…’

And so I’ll throw all these kind of keys at people that I work with and inevitably what happens is people, graphic artists, are looking for a metaphor. I get the art back, and it’ll be something that maybe metaphorically or artistically is in line with what I’m doing but it doesn’t move me in a real definite way.

It’s the same reason I ended up mixing all my own music because after a while I’m just like, ‘no-no-no-no.’ I either have a real problem communicating here, which wouldn’t surprise me, or it’s just what I’m doing is so left of centre in a way that it’s difficult to find somebody that’s on the same page. So with mixing I’ve learned how to do it and I’ve found my way, but in terms of graphics there’s a part of me that thinks maybe I should learn how to do that. Because it’ll feel like -this- and then someone will show me a picture and I’m like, ‘nah, not at all.’

But I think that with these two recent records, Deconstruction and Ghost – specifically with Deconstruction in my head, I can probably write this sort of Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque sort of absurdity that, if I was in a genre which afforded me the opportunity to really go for it on the level that they’re able to do with The Lion King or The Phantom of the Opera, it would be, in my opinion, just this completely free piece of work that has no creative limits and no boundaries, and that includes everything from like the most vulgar to the most beautiful.

With Ghost it was very much – as I was writing, I spent a lot of time in nature. I love nature, right, so the ability to kind of represent it came down to between me and the artists, and me just saying, ‘look, it’s nature, so just get a bunch of pictures of nature and send it to me.’

But again, my musical world is – after twenty years, I’m still touring in a van, so it’s like all these kind of pie in the sky ideas, I guess. They’re definitely there, but whether or not they ever get actualized depends upon several things, not the least of which is the general public gettin’ past the absurdity of it, right?

There’s talk about next year in London being able to do it with acrobats and a symphony and all this (see November 17th announcement for “The Bizarre World of Devin Townsend presents: The Retinal Circus”).

Again, it’s like, what I do is kind of uncharted territory as far as I’m concerned. And whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing or necessarily an enjoyable thing, I think, is definitely up to other people. The problem with it is trying to convince people that it’s worth an investment, and it’s been very difficult.

You know, I pay my rent and everything but… For example, I’ve got this Ziltoid character – he’s this big puppet, and now we’re making the second version that’s this three-person puppet. And his humour’s all just like a cross between fart jokes and quantum physics. I think that if you have him interview people and have a serious budget, you could make something that would be so engaging for people.

Because if it could be so creatively free to the point where you could actualize everything, in my mind, I don’t see how it could not be interesting. Whether or not you like the music. Whether or not you think it’s truly funny. It’s interesting. And I think that music and art, for me, that’s how I kind of break it down into whether or not I appreciate it, at this point. ‘Well, does it engage me?’ Whether or not it’s something that I would ever use to describe my emotional state of mind – in all honesty, I’m so far past that point in my life.

Devin Townsend Project plays the following Canadian shows in December:
Dec 09 London, ON – London Music Hall
Dec 10 Toronto, ON – Opera House
Dec 11 St. Catharines, ON – L3 Nightclub
Dec 13 Kingston, ON – Mansion House
Dec 14 Montreal, QC – Foufounes Electriques
Dec 15 Ottawa, ON – Mavericks

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.