While it is true that we interviewed Devin Townsend not too long ago, the man is always active and always has a lot of interesting things to say. So with the Retinal Circus boxset dropping fairly soon, we thought we'd catch up on any developments and look forward at a few things with Devin.
Read the full chat here…
You’ve got the Retinal Circus boxset coming out pretty soon. Have the pre-sales on that been pretty good?
I don’t know. I think it’s only been released for presale through one avenue, the merchandise company. To be honest, I don’t keep up on the sales of what I’m involved in, but no one’s yelling at me, so that’s probably a good sign.
No one was like, “The pop-up book was too much, what are you doing?”
Yeah, but again, it’s good for musicians like myself how the industry has morphed. Everybody’s always going to complain about money, of course, but it’s forced the hand of the industry to have to provide interesting products like that. As an artist, all I was ever really looking for was my music to be represented in ways that were interesting. So the fact that the label feels it’s essential to put out these things now is awesome for me. It’s like, “oh shit! We get a pop-up book? Sweet!”
Have they ever told you to hold back?
I get told to hold back three to five times a day by three to five different groups of people. If I had a list of things that are a liability for me and the people I work with, that probably tops the list.
I just listened to the Ziltoid Radio Episode 1 this morning. That was lovely; such a good time. Are you enjoying that opportunity of branching out? I know you’ve done a version of this before your live sets for a while now. Is this bigger and better to you?
Yeah. I’ve been working on another one today. I leave for Chicago in an hour so I’m up to the last minute as per usual, but I’m working on another one. Yeah I do enjoy it. However, it’s a strange thing that happens, man. When I do things that people like, my first reaction is like, “Oh, ok well, I’m finished with that then. What else is there?” I find that with the Ziltoid thing, I have to pace myself on it, or else it becomes work. Just yelling into a microphone, and scatological jokes. Every once in a while, the absurd factor of it is just satisfying to me. I like to be able to be this combination of things in the character, but as soon as people start to expect it, or anticipate it, or need it even, my reaction is just, “Ok, I don’t want to do it anymore.” [laughs] So we’ll see. I’ve done another episode. I asked them to move it so it’s not every week. It’s every second week now. It’s a lot of work. Waking up every morning, there’s a bunch of times — fuck — a majority of the time, I don’t feel like pretending I’m an alien making poop jokes. When I feel like it, it’s great. I feel like a lot of what defines me in general is that when I feel like doing something, in my opinion, I do it quite well. As soon as I’m either forced to or feel an obligation to do something that my heart’s not in, I’m just not into it at all. So, I’m trying to pace Ziltoid right now.
That answers my next question, which was how long do you see yourself doing this? Is this just something you see yourself doing from now on?
Well, I mean it seems pretty cool. The station that put it on has it in prime time in the UK, and it’s a good channel, at five o’clock on a Saturday. The parameters they imposed were pretty lenient. I can’t say fuck, I can’t say cunt, I can’t say shit, I can’t make gay jokes.
You can’t say cunt? What?
I thought that was like “dude” in the UK. [laughs]
That’s what they have on the five pound note. So, within the parameters of that, I mean, I can find my way around that. I got a kick out of . . . “how do you say the same thing, but with different words?” You just end up pissing people off, and the more you piss people off, the more I’m just like, “I don’t want to play anymore then.” If you’re going to edit me, and tell me what I can’t do, [then] I’m never going to say anything. I’ve got a conscience, I believe, I think. I’m not interested in misogyny; I’m not interested in sadism. I’m not interested in racism, or homophobia, or any of those things — But I’ll definitely say crude, stupid things. It’s a fine line that you have to walk, but my reaction to being edited, in general, is typically, “Okay, well, I’m not going to do that anymore.” And that’s not just a petulant, “I’m going to take my ball and go home”. It just sucks the fun out of it. Currently, it’s been pretty free for me, with the Ziltoid thing. The station and the people involved have been proactive with their discussions with me. But since I’m putting together Ziltoid Television, and I’ve got this movie planned, then money starts coming and people are like, “We want to invest in this, but here are the parameters: You have to include this logo, [and] in the middle of your thing say something about a Ford Fiesta,” or something stupid like that. It takes the freedom out of it, and that’s ultimately what I’m in this for: to be creatively free.
How is the TV show coming along, by the way?
It’s good. We’ve got enough for a demo. Our ideas are very grandiose and it’s fucking expensive to put this on. We’ve got what we could afford at this point, which was more than we could afford, [and it] has not allowed us to make an episode, but a demo of an episode that we can present to people with money and say, “Look, we want to do something that is as far out there as we can allow it to go,” and not, again, into offensive — well, [not] intentionally offensive things — but into creative zones that are completely out to lunch; and actualize it into something that looks like any other of those Hollywood movies people spend tons of money on. I saw Clash of the Titans on the plane, and it’s a two hundred million dollar film that su-uuuucks! Look at that thing. It looks great, and it’s a horrible fucking movie. So I like to think that if you could get a hundredth of that budget, and make something that’s just creatively a middle finger . . . in a sense, it just feels liberating to me. My point is not to stick it to the man or anything, [but] it’s fun. It cracks me up.
How close to release is Casualties?
Well, it’s not a label. I’m funding it myself. After Epicloud, the reaction to that record was surprisingly strong for a record that, structurally and creatively, was something I put together in a month. There was not the same emotional connection to the music. There’s a very deep emotional connection to the process, the theme, and why it was written. Musically, I was under this artistic need for one of those structures that everybody likes. Let’s listen to the radio — Starts with a verse, there’s the pre-chorus, then the chorus, midsection, then it modulates at the end, or whatever, and I went through songs and tried to figure it out. Strangely, people liked it. Not to discredit the record, because I put a lot of effort into that record, but the difference between something like Epicloud and something like Casualties is that there’s no agenda with Casualties. When I was a teenager I was playing guitar at my buddy’s house, or in my living room, or on a bus, songs just start to appear. And here I was with so many years of doing this, with twenty songs that evolved simultaneously to all this other stuff that I’ve been doing that have no ties to anything. It’s not DTP, it’s not Strapping, it’s not a label telling me it needs to be loud or more compressed. As a result of this, I really legitimately like it.
I follow you on Twitter, and I observed you asking people’s crowdsourcing options. Are you considering that still, or have you made a decision for an Indie Gogo or a Kickstarter or anything for this album?
I think that I’m going to try it. However, at this point Casualties is evolving from being this quiet little Johnny Cash thing, into this movie, in a way. Everything that I find myself writing, typically, has a theatrical counterpart in my mind’s eye, and as I progress through experiences, people, management, what have you, my ability to actualize those images are becoming a reality. Casualties has also started to morph into this theatrical dark thing. With the crowdsourcing, I’m hoping that I can finish this series of videos I’ve been making in regards to Casualties to give people a really solid idea what the album is about; what the theme is, how it fits into the body of work I’ve created, and why I chose to do it independently. It’s not like we don’t have an option. Of course, we could do it with Century Media or InsideOut, but for me it’s part of the statement, it’s part of the concept, it’s part of the theme, to not have it like that. It’s a fine line. I feel a lot of times with crowdsourcing, people are just doing it over and over and over. I think you’re always going to have a certain amount of your fan base that’s going to feel obliged, in a sense, to support what you do, and I get that, but I hate asking for money. I hate it. I wouldn’t do it unless I really felt like it was necessary. So, long time coming, but I want people to see, through the videos, that we’re asking for this to really offer something cool. It’s not like we made the record for five grand and we’re asking for fifty. It’s like if we’re asking for fifty it’s because we need sixty.
Since you’re going to have this album that’s not on the heavy side, do you see yourself touring a non-heavy tour in the States? You played an acoustic set at Download so there’s an audience there for it. Do you see the same potential turnout for this side of your music?
I think that’s an interesting question. Because like Ziltoid, like Strapping, like anything in my world, touring is a very fine line between being something I feel supports what I do, versus something that becomes a liability for it. There’s some bands that benefit from being relentlessly out on tour, that goes from touring to writing to recording to touring to writing to recording. Anything in my life that monopolizes my time, it doesn’t matter what it is — kids, music, touring, one band in the exclusion of something else — I always end up . . . maybe not resenting it, but feeling like I need to separate myself from it. Touring just got to be so much, that everything else in my life takes a hit. Finally, after the Gojira tour in America, I was like, “Enough.” If I do start touring again this year — I mean, I’ve done some shows — but if I do start doing it again, it’s done as a complement to everything else. It all has to play ball with each other. Touring became my world to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t think it hurt. I thought it was good idea, but if I continue doing that right now it’ll burn me out.
I was really surprised that you were touring as much as you were the past few years.
Fuck, man, same.
The opportunities just kept coming?
After I’ve been doing it for so many years, the opportunities are as much as you can put on your plate essentially. We’re all so — and when I say “we” I mean me as an artist — we’re at a place in our career that’s an intermediate stage, where you get these opportunities, or you get to play these really big shows, or really good tours with really big bands, or moderately big bands,;but none of it generates a lot of income. It’s all investments at this point, and they’re good investments because they make you more visible and hopefully get you to that stage where every time you do go on tour, your drawing power is such that one territory isn’t paying for another that you’re trying to break into. We toured for a couple years and just barely hung on financially. I got to a point where I was thinking to myself that I could do so much. I could do a ton of things that doesn’t involve me showing up at Crazy Eddy’s Wing Bar on a Tuesday night and play for two hours. I’m working it out. Obviously touring is a big part of my life, and always will be. Right now, I’m trying to find balance between a lot of things. I will.
I interviewed Jørgen from Shining not too long ago and he mentioned an exchange of some files between you guys, and you having him play on one of your albums. Would you mind elaborating on that?
Jørgen is a phenomenon. Having a conversation with the guy is like listening to Shining. He’s unbelievably intense, but that’s not a negative statement, but more of a reflection on his mind. He’s brilliant. Casualties required, in my mind, people of phenomenal ability to play simplistic parts. The drummer for Casualties is Morgan Agren. If you’re familiar with Morgan, he’s . . . he’s inhuman. He played on Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects, he did some Alan Holdsworth, he did Zappa. The guy’s insane. So getting him to play train beats, Johnny Cash-style, ended up producing was the rhythm I was looking for but with this brilliant slant that’s just left of center where it’s not obvious. Jørgen as well. I wanted some saxophone, but it’s very quiet music, very subtle, and I needed [him] to do what [he] would do to it. Even though he’s only on a couple songs, they’re left of center. It’s not the Pink Floyd saxophone player belting out some blues licks — it’s this intense mind, playing basic structures. It’s really interesting to me.
I can’t imagine “Madness and the Damage Done” saxophone over Johnny Cash tracks.
Yeah, but it’s a cadence. The intention of your soul comes through in everything you do. You can play “Folsom Prison Blues” and if someone’s listening closely, they’re going to hear you no matter how much you try to hide it.
I just saw Black Sabbath recently and it had me wonder this: do you see yourself doing this sort of thing when you’re sixty-five?
Oh god, I hope not. Holy crap, man. I want to be creatively active when I’m sixty-five, absolutely. That includes music, and art, and film, and puppets, and bass, and guitar, singing, all that; but I get bored so easily, it’s unbelievable. That quest for endless amounts of money tends to lead people on these paths that I hope I won’t understand eventually, but who knows. Shit, fifteen years from now I might be like, “Hey remember that conversation we had, I was wrong. I don’t know what to tell you.” Currently, it seems like a lot of work.