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The Genesis of Genius: An Interview with Devin Townsend

Posted by on June 6, 2019 at 12:55 pm

Devin Townsend (photo by Tanya Ghosh)

With the release of his latest LP, Empath, Devin Townsend proved once again to be a truly inimitable artist whose ability to synthesize styles while juxtaposing endearing ridiculousness and rumination is as exceptional as ever. A self-reflective culmination of his many personas, the record is perhaps the best example yet of what makes him such an ambitious and thought-provoking artist.

I recently spoke with Townsend about his current acoustic tour, the causes and effects of Empath, the polarizing demands of being a modern musician, the potential toxicity of public opinion, and plenty more!

Hey, Devin. Thanks for taking some time to chat again.

No problem, man.

Before getting to Empath, I wanted to ask you to choose three artists whom you’d like to cover your work (be it because they’d do faithful versions or because they’d do really bad or different ones).

Hmmm, wow. I’ve never been asked that or thought about it.

Oh, well, that’s good, I guess.

Yeah. Enya. She could do one. That’d be great. Maybe “Weird Al” Yankovic and Merzbow, too. I think those would be good.

Agreed. Those some interesting choices. So, you’ve been doing the North American acoustic tour as an opener for Avatar. A friend of mine just saw you at Starland Ballroom on May 18th and she said that it would’ve been amazing if she could hear you better since everyone in the crowd was being raucous. That leads me to ask how it’s been going and if audiences have been receptive to you, especially if they’re there to see Avatar and are maybe not so familiar with your work.

It’s not the ideal environment for an acoustic show, but at the same time, I think that I’m getting through to people. The reactions have been, like, ten times better than I anticipated. You’re always going to get people who are tuning out acoustic music in a setting like that, but I would say that the majority are on board, even if some of them are talking as well. I came into it knowing that that would happen, so it’s not an irritant in the ways that it would be on an “Evening with . . .” acoustic show that I’ve done. Those are seated and more intimate. It gives me an opportunity to work an unworkable situation.

That’s kind of the opposite of how Aaron Lewis reacted to his rowdy audience a few months back. He walked off stage, I think, and was really antagonistic. Of course, he had a right to be.

[Laughs] Yeah, I think you have to go into it knowing what the limitations are for a set-up like that. You can’t approach a bar and then get mad at people when you just want to drink tea, you know? You have to do what you came to do. Overwhelmingly, I think it’s working for me in a crazy way, to the point where I’m actually doing that Montréal metal festival [Heavy Montréal, in July] as an acoustic player, too. Prior to getting out there with a new band, this is a way for me to kill a lot of birds with one stone.

Exactly. I’m glad you mentioned a new band because I wanted to ask how hard it’ll be to play Empath in its full form. 

Oh, fuck yeah. It’s going to be difficult. It’ll be a nightmare, but what I’m hoping to do is start from scratch, basically. The first couple of tours are the acoustic tours, with just me and a guitar and some sound effects. After that, I’m doing several tours with several different groups of people; true to that, I’ll find what works and what doesn’t. By the end or middle of 2021, I’ll be doing Empath in its entirety in a number of places worldwide. I kind of want to go through a bunch of things and get my mind around what exactly I want to do and what I want to do first.

That makes sense. Now that you’re a bit further removed from the album—in terms of both creating it and unleashing it onto the world—I wonder if you feel that it’s successful in what it was meant to do. Are there any regrets about it or things you didn’t explore all the way?

The thing about that record is that there were a lot of things that I needed to learn just by doing it. The main thing that’s been healthy for me is putting it out and realizing that to most people, it’s just another album. Just something else that I’ve done. When I was making it, it was really important to me. In the right environment, it’s a phenomenal record, actually—

Absolutely

—and it’s good for me to see that for 99.9% of the population, it’s just another record that goes over their head or what have you. There’s a small percentage of people who understand what it is I was trying to do and they really get it. So, it’s hard for me to comment on whether or not it’s been received properly. I couldn’t be happier with how it came out, though.

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As you should be, for sure. It’s been billed as the culmination of your career and of every sort of persona or style that you put out there in one package. It definitely is. I mean, I think you’re an artist whose work is so wide-ranging that it’s impossible to declare one LP as your “best.” It’s like the Beatles. Someone may ask which is the greatest and it depends on what type of music you’re looking for. Then you can narrow it down.

That’s the hope, man, and I appreciate that. A lot of it, for me, is that every period I’ve gone through compels me to write about that period. It’s the only one that’s there, right? It’s kind of apples vs. oranges in my own mind when it comes to comparing the albums. Between Alien and Casualities of Cool, it’s a world apart but they both have the same intention: to accurately define what was going on for me at that time.

I know some people who are big fans of yours and they’ve always found a deeper level to your music than just being entertainment. For example, how you explore—I don’t want to say mental illness, but things like self-actualization, self-reflection, depression, anxiety, spirituality, etc. Empath probably captures that better than any of its predecessors.

To this point in time, I agree. There was an overarching principle with Empath that leaves me looking forward to what happens next in a way that I haven’t felt for a while. A lot of that surrounded the fact I was almost trying to make a “Best-of” collection of material. You know, what made the Strapping Young Lad stuff cool? What made Deconstruction cool? What made the orchestral stuff cool? I wanted to reflect on and summarize all of that with Empath. At the same time, I still am unfulfilled when it comes to one thing that I’ve been trying to achieve, and I’m hoping that that will be the next thing in line. Or, maybe I’m chasing it like a donkey with a carrot [laughs]. Either way, it’ll give me something to write about. It hasn’t been 100% correct yet but it’s been the best that it can be for the time that it presented itself.

That’s a great way to look at it. If you were totally satisfied and finished with all you’ve had to say, there’d be almost nowhere left to go.

I still need to figure out myself, and in the absence of doing that—and consciously and vigorously trying to do that—it’s not going to be what I want it to be. A lot of times, people are confused about or critical of the fact that there is so much introspection in what I do. It’s a means to an end; I’m not going to be privy to the sounds that I want to be privy to unless I go through these sort of introspective processes. Empath is a big one of those; it’s one of the biggest, but it’s still not the end, you know?

Definitely. The first album I heard of yours was Synchestra, and I was blown away by how some passages are just that wall-of-sound quality without any real “song” there, but those are actually the most spiritually resonant and meaningful parts. Those are the parts that really represent negative feelings like imposter syndrome well, and they connect with people the most.

It’s interesting that you say that because a lot of the textural aspects of what I do is really important to me, much more so than—like, every now and then, I get riffy, sure, but what those textural sounds imply is really crucial. I’ve always felt like I’m feeling the room with a vibe that, if I get it right, will remind me of the frame of mind I was in at that period. A record like The Hummer or Devlab or anything that has more abstract sounds has a lot to do with trying to paint the mood when you’re in a headspace with headphones on. Again, I do like riffs but sometimes, I don’t [laughs].

I know what you mean. It has to be whatever it’s meant to be. You can’t create to serve any obligation or grouping. It’ll be what it is, however it’s classified.

Totally, but that can be problematic when you’re trying to rationalize it. It’s one thing to make your work in the studio and try to really scratch that itch so that when you’re listening back, you’re like, “Yeah, that makes me feel the way that it’s supposed to make me feel, for better or for worse.” If you do it right, there’s a good chance that other people will feel that, too. The next step is often a lot of press, and fortunately, with someone like yourself who seems on board with it, I don’t have to rationalize it. But, there are a ton of other people who’ll ask why I did something as I did and I have to think of some kind of answer because saying, “Because I wanted to” doesn’t quite cut it with them. I have to incorporate that analytical slant into not only the creation of it but also after it’s over.

That’s really true these days, with how toxic fans can be in the comments sections of the major websites and on social media.

All of them have it, man. Metal Injection, Blabbermouth, Metal Sucks, etc. It’s part of our scene, unfortunately. There’s this recreational outrage that’s a big part of society now and it has a lot to do with the fact that no one’s really got a voice, yet we’ve all got a voice now, too. Also, how easy it is to hurt or offend people online—or be offended online—gives people a real angle to get attention. If you can say things in a public forum where the artist will read it or people who’ve invested a bunch of money into the website will read it or whatever, and you know that it’ll piss them off, it’s a toxic way of bringing attention to yourself. Maybe that’s what they’re craving. Like, “Please, somebody notice me! Therefore, your opinion is a piece of shit and I hope you die” [laughs].

It’s ridiculous and plays into a larger issue with narcissism and feeling invisible and needing validation. I’m fascinated with the entitlement people have over someone else's music. I’ve spoken with a few people about it, like Steven Wilson because he seems to get it a lot. His fans will threaten to never listen to him again because they don’t like the newest release. Opeth gets that a lot, too. I’m not saying that the artists don’t care about their listeners, but creative people make art for themselves first and foremost. If someone doesn’t like Empath, that’s not good, of course, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s what you wanted to make. If they don’t like it, fine, but don’t pretend like your threat to no longer be a fan really matters. Maybe that sounds harsh.

Well, it’s not a bad thing, either, man. Like you say, someone threatening not to listen is such a weird threat. It’s not a threat at all. There are thousands of bands out there that want your attention, so if me being who I am is something that you don’t like, then I don’t want you to listen to it. It’s as simple as that. What I also find when you talk about entitlement and being an artist in this day and age is that it’s two-sided. On one sided, I get tweets sent to me about how I need to use my visibility to stand for things. For political ideologies or for veganism or being pro or anti-Israel. Any of these things that were never a part of my agenda.  For me, music was always hopefully something that would give people a reprieve from that shit.

That’d be nice.

Conversely, alongside these aggressive people telling me, “Unless you’re using your position to stand for something I believe in, you’re being weak or negligent,” there are people saying, “I pay your bills and I don’t want to hear shit from you. Shut the fuck up.”

That goes back to people like Bob Dylan being questioned on whether or not they should have messages in their songs or if they should just entertain us.

The only solution I’ve come to with that is to ignore it all and do what I want to do. If people think that I should be supporting this, that, or the other thing because times are turbulent—or they think I should just be quiet—I’m just going to do what I’m going to do. I’ve actually really taken to not reading comments and I’ve backed off significantly from Twitter. You know, I still post pictures of dogs taking a shit on Instagram because I think it’s funny [laughs]. Other than that, if I’m going to achieve what I need to with this music, I can’t let that stuff infiltrate what I’m doing.

Devin Townsend (photo by Tanya Ghosh)

I feel like if you tried to have clearer messages within more structured templates, it would limit your music. It’d make it more generic. Your music transcends having an overt message on an accessible, radio-friendly surface. It’s deeper than that.

Absolutely. The only thing that you can do in such a divisive time is to work on yourself and hope that that productivity benefits your art, your interactions with people, your level of patience, etc. That should have a ripple effect on other people who are interested in what you do. Outside of that, you’re just screaming into the wind, man, and what really gets me is—I’ll use a broad example here. There are certain things that I hear artists say that make me think, “Of course. That makes perfect sense. Who would even question that?” Then you scan the comments section and people are just insulting them. You can get out there and say, “My stance is that judging another human being based on the color of their skin is wrong.” It could be something as benign as that and you’ll still find people who have a whole “Well, actually . . .” response and all that shit.

Sadly, you’re right.

If you want to open that Pandora’s Box of public opinion, you’ve gotta have more time in your day to beat that negativity back than I do. I’d rather have my opinions work on changing parts of myself that are out of alignment to those opinions and then making music with the most force that I can without having to engage in these dumbass fucking debates with people. It’ll be clear what side I’m on or what I feel or don’t feel without having to trumpet it.

Plus, the whole point of argumentation and empathy is not “I’m right, you’re wrong, and you’re an asshole.” It’s “Let’s try to see each other’s perspectives and views and share a common ground.”

Even saying that is going to be a problem for some people. You’re a glutton for punishment if you feel the need to make these statements. It’s clear where I’m at by listening to what I do. Like, there’s no question about it [laughs], at least to me. It’s about refining that to the point where everything you’re saying and doing resonates with that.

You’re right. Moving back to Empath, you once again have a bonus disc of superb extra material. It’s called Tests of Manhood, so I’m curious as to why it’s called that. It caught my attention, too, because a lot of what I teach is about gender roles and expectations.

Well, I used that name more in a humorous sense. People often refer to tests of manhood as having gone through something that was really difficult. Empath was a motherfucker on every level: psychologically, monetarily, etc. It tested my patience and my confidence. Having to mix it again after the first mix didn’t work. All of that was a humongous task with so much involved and so many moving parts. By the end, when I was mixing the bonus disc a couple days after Christmas, I remember feeling like I couldn’t do it anymore. I just wanted to throw in the towel. A friend of mine said, “It’s just a test of manhood, man. You gotta get through it,” and I said, “Oh, well, there’s the name!”

I mean, gender is also a thing I find interesting because I tend to work with a lot of women and I’ve got a lot of strong women in my life. There's so much shit that they have to deal with because of what we as a society are imposing on the two main genders, I guess you could call them. I know a lot of men—myself included—who struggle with what it is that we’re expected to be, too. When you’re hyper-sensitive to that stuff, it’s hard to tune out that noise and not subscribe to that macho bullshit that’s just a pain in the ass as well.

Totally. Expectations of any one type of person is potentially damaging for everyone. You mentioned the monetary aspect of Empath. From what I’ve read, it was an especially risky undertaking in that regard. If you want to say, has it matched those expectations? What made you decide to risk it?

At any moment, life can be over. I’ve played it safe for the past decade with DTP [Devin Townsend Project] and I have a lot of things left to say that have been left undone. There’s no time like the present, and my visions are, unfortunately, really grand. I decided with this to just start doing it. If it’s meant to happen, it’ll work out. As for how it’s doing financially, I’m not sure. I don’t know what the sales numbers are or if we’ve made money on it. That’s less of the point than the impact it’s had on certain people and how that’s allowed me to take steps toward actualizing a bunch of other things next that I didn’t think I would. There’s really been a lot of learning that comes from taking that risk that’ll allow me to take more in the future and hopefully not fall flat on my face.

That’s the antithesis of being the commercial sell out who’s guaranteed to make tons of money for the label without really doing anything special or vital.

Exactly.

Thanks again for the chat, Devin. Congrats on another incredible record.

Thanks for the support and for the understanding. Talk to you soon, brother.

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