Devin Townsend - A Work In Progress

An epic interview for an epic album and an epic man...

The phone rings and after some brief technological issues, Devin Townsend and I are babbling away like old chums. He’s a bloody likeable fellow is Mr Townsend, and with his charming, easy going ways, he makes you feel like old mates catching up instead of a filthy, sordid music journo interviewing a musician who’s just released his 15th studio album. Whallop! Devin fact, right there…

So, Devin, what’s the go with Epicloud? It’s a corker of an album that appears to be dividing folk left, right and centre. Bizarrely (though not for Devin) he’s already moving beyond his latest release: “I think what I’m writing right now, and for the future, has relied upon me getting rid of that whole ‘Epicloud’ stuff – it was like, through my entire career, since Ocean Machine and everything [since], there’s always been this sort of underlying eighties cheesy pop mentality in what I do and I think it has found its way into everything and I think in a certain way it’s a part of what I do, like with Strapping [Young Lad] but having the opportunity to just get it all out in one place has made everything I’m doing right now just totally clear – there’s just no need for me to throw in that stuff now that I’ve done it with Epicloud, and so, with that in mind, I decided to take it to the limit.”

I liken the album to Zen koan; it almost short -circuits my mind every time I listen to it (and lately, that’s been a hell of a lot). I fear I might sound a bit over-zealous, but luckily Devin gets my point; “Me too – in a good and a bad way…”; he stops to correct himself, “…not in a bad way – but in a way that’s really over-whelming. Emotionally, it just seems that over the past few years, now that the kids are getting older, I’m getting older and all of that sort of stuff, it seems like I’m getting less and less able to manage my emotions in real life and it just keeps coming out more and more intensely, for me at least, in the records.”

He mentions how his latest project Casualties of Cool was going to be, like Epicloud, “a little thing that happened” but as it turns out “It ended up being this monstrosity and it’s turned into this fucking super-intense thing…it’s tiring!” He’s laughing as he says this so I know he’s not overly concerned about his energy levels. He’s one of those musicians that just continually pours out his creativity – but wasn’t Epicloud going to be the release before Z Squared, which accordingly to our last interview, you said would be ‘unbelievably complicated’? Are you still working towards that? “Yeah, but at the same time that I wrote Epicloud, I wrote this Casualties record…I write so much fucking music, right? When I finished Epicloud I had another 15 songs of this sort of stuff and I thought ‘Oh well, I’ll just do it with a drummer’ then all of a sudden the drummer I got was just so fucking phenomenal that he brought something else to the table and then I had this lady singer and she brought something else and then this bass player playing on it and now I’m assembling this Casualties record; it’s just a monster, right? And I think it’s great and I love it but every step of the way I just have to stop saying ‘it’s this little thing’ – whatever I do, I go overboard with.”

Coming back to Epicloud, I hear you’ve got Anneke Van Giersbergen doing vocals again. What is it about her voice that keeps you bringing her back into your work? Before answering, Devin congratulates me on almost pronouncing Anneke’s name correctly. I say ‘almost’ because I still fucked it up a little bit. So what is it about her voice? “To be fair, man, I spend so much time with myself, now my career is based on me; the name of the band is me and my records are in my name; the Devin Townsend Project, and I’ve got so much music and I hear so much of my voice from interviews and so on – I’m just sick of myself, right? I’ve always preferred the sound of female voices ever since Enya, ever since I was a kid, so I tend to really write a lot of my music for female voices, and with every record I’ve got an idea of what I want to achieve with it, and then I just try and find the voice for that, and Anneke has a very specific voice. She’s got this sort of angelic, pixie-ish quality but it’s super-strong. It’s like this completely pure, small yet massive voice that can just cut through metal. I like the female qualities of the female voice but I like it to be strong so for something like Epicloud, which has this kind of space-rock, over the top, quasi-spiritual bent to it, Anneke’s perfect for that - she’s got this amazing way of remaining completely girlish while holding her own against anybody. It’s a very rare trait!” You can hear the happiness in his voice as he waxes lyrical about Anneke’s vocal talents. He‘s delighted to have found such a perfect fit for his music and I don’t think he’ll be letting go anytime soon.

Getting back to the quasi-spiritual nature of Epicloud; without wanting to get all devout and holy – is there something that you’re trying to pin down with your music? He is very forth-coming with his response; “Sure…absolutely…yeah; If I had to distil it: I dislike ‘religion’ to such an extent that I feel almost offended by the fact that the things in life that I think are awesome, no-body has the right to try and hold a claim to. I feel offended in a certain way that moments I’ve had of spiritual significance; whether through whatever experience; drugs or sex or life or death or any of that stuff that we all share, it just seems that in order to have any connection to it, you have to be part of one or another cultish group. It almost seems like there’s a monopoly on it; unless you adhere to one group or another then you’re not allowed to participate in that shit…” His passion for this is most apparent and I weigh in with the idea that monotheism is proof that you’ve misunderstood. He embraces the idea with a hearty “That’s it! That’s exactly it! And when people ask me what my spiritual view is I’m like ‘I don’t fucking know!’ Nobody knows! And anybody who does say that they know is just suspect…just back away! The red flag is up! But at the same time, anytime I’ve had an experience where I’m like ‘Man! That’s unbelievably intense!’ or just awesome; you’re sitting out in the middle of the night, looking at the universe and you’re like ‘What the fuck, man?!’ and the news is on and everything’s intense and brutal and all that shit and it all just seems to revolve around everybody’s assumptions that their little group is the one to be a part of and if you’re not; you’re fucked! And not only are you fucked but your family’s fucked and your dog is fucked! So I guess Epicloud, in my spiritual sense of it, is a lot more about ‘Hey! I don’t know. I have no idea’  but it doesn’t change the fact that there are things about life that I think are pretty intense and beautiful in their own way so here’s a record that uses the gospel choir idea and that ‘over the top’ epic nature of shit to make a statement about that. But again, I’ve also heard from people who are just like ‘Well, you must be a spiritual person, you must have had some enlightened experience recently that put you in this position to do it’ – No! Of course not! Fuck, no! I’m fucked! Everything in my world is fucked – not that it’s bad, I’m just 40, you know?! So I think that Epicloud was almost an excuse for me to say ‘Well, here’s what I think a spiritual sort of thing would sound like’ - it’s totally poppy and all that sort of stuff but once it [Epicloud] was finished, what I’m doing now is a miserable sort of record! It’s super dark…a miserable fucking record, right?!”

People need you to do that – you’re too damn happy! “That’s the thing; when people say that I’m really happy, I say ‘No, I’m not!’ – I was experimenting with it; I was experimenting with ‘happy’ and all that sort of stuff. There are moments of happiness, of course – that’s what Epicloud was written about; it was written about those moments of happiness and I think it’s important for me, as a musician, to be able to say ‘Hang on! Of course there are moments of happiness’ and that’s what it sounds like to me. But there are also moments of brutality and moments of confusion and moments of horror and moments of melancholy and all that shit, and this is what that sounds like. So Epicloud’s just one of those; it’s just a moment of whatever.”

You seem very down to earth; do you have a murderous streak or any black skeletons in the closet? “No more so than anybody else! I’d be surprised if you didn’t have some murderous impulses from time to time…” It’s true; my back-yard is chock full of people I’ve murdered. Devin continues thusly: “It’s like my kids are going to school and they’re having to interact with other peoples’ stupid kids and my first reaction when I see idealism leave from these little ‘vessels’ is to drop the fucking bombs. I guess my whole trip is that I’m not trying to make any statement; I’m just throwing things out there that I feel and there’s no right or wrong, it’s just a bunch of music, right? I guess if there’s anything that’s gonna define me it’s that whatever I do I’m gonna take it to its conclusion so when I was doing Alien, I took it to its conclusion – it fucked me up for a year! – When I committed to making a record like Epicloud, it was like 'OK, that’s how it goes’ and damn the torpedoes, it’s going to be a completely epic, positive, spiritual hard-rock record but once it’s over; it’s over.” He’s laughing like a mad-man now and I have to laugh too – he’s one funny, lucid man. He continues “  That one goes on the shelf and then what’s next? OK, Casualties of Cool; this is like some isolated, melancholic, quiet horror movie.” So it’s like a soundtrack to a David Lynch film? “Very much! It very much reminds me of Eraserhead. Then after that’s done, it’s Z Squared hopefully – I’ve been trying to get to it but I keep getting side-tracked by all these other things – it’s like whatever it is that I feel compelled to do; hell or high water, I’m gonna make it what it wants to be. Epicloud, when I made it, I stood back from it and went ‘Ha! OK! Wicked!’ because I also know that with that, there was a certain moment when I was making it, where it was so fucking intense and I just wasn’t in the mood for intense.” He’s laughing again…Nurse! Nurse! Mr Devin is unsettling me with his infectious laughter…

As mentioned previously, he’s a prolific writer but when I ask if he ever feels like he’s drowning in his own creative juices, he almost struggles to adequately explain himself: “I’m a neurotic person - I work really hard to get through the things in my life that obviously cause me problems but it’s such a work in progress that everyday it’s like ‘Shit! I had no idea that was part of it…’ but what comes from all of that shit is shit-tons of music [that’s a technical term, right there]. When I’m not making music, I’m thinking about making music, but I can also turn it off - it’s not like I feel like I’m doomed to make it – it’s awesome! It’s the best part of my life!” but he then immediately corrects himself, chuckling: “Rather it’s the easiest part of my life! I get a chance to make music? Fucking right! Man! Show me it! All the rest of the stuff; the money and the relationships, the kids and the getting older and the dying and the family and friends, all that shit – that’s the fucking hard part! Making songs? Sure! That’s great…”

So you’re touring Europe from October to December but you’re also doing a one-off  gig at London’s Roundhouse; The Retinal Circus – a three hour, all singing, all dancing retrospective of your entire musical career. It sold out ages ago but it’s also being streamed live via the wonderful inter-webs? Tell me more, Mr Townsend. “I’m unsure how that’s going to come together because the management said ‘You should do a circus and it should be a retrospective of your career’ but that’s kind of forced me to make a story out of it all – and it’s this dubious story that I’ve been trying to not make about me – but is obviously about me – everything I fucking write is about me! So it’s like this super-narcissistic, over the top thing that’s forced me to look at 20 years of music and god! There’s some shit that we’re playing and I listen to the lyrics and I’m like *Epic face-palm* but I think that it’s important for me to do this show, in a lot of ways, because for one;  I really like the idea of doing theatre stuff for the future with Ziltoid, and for another it’s forced me to confront all of it, right? I think ultimately, the only way I can get on to the next phase of it [life, his career, everything] is to get rid of all the shit. If it turns out to be this really fucking embarrassing thing then…well…” He doesn't need to finish the sentence because you know he'll just deal with it as it comes up. So is this your ‘Tommy’? “I guess in my mind, it’s practice for that, but it’s not that…yet. This is like the High School Musical version of it, you know?”

Sadly after the European tour, there are no plans to come to Australia. As Devin puts it: “I love Australia but after The Retinal Circus, we’ve got two months co-headlining with Fear Factory in Europe and then we’re doing a tour in America with a band I like but, you know, apparently I’m not allowed to say who it is…” His voice takes on a rather petulant tone but lightens as he finsishes with “And then, from there, tons of shit, dude – Casualties, I’ve got Ziltoid, I’ve got a ton of shit…’ Once again, he’s laughing his tits off. So no plans for a holiday then?  “Holidays are work, dude!” Yer! The wife gets you to clean out the gutters and shit like that? “Fucking right, dude! And not only that, we went to Disneyland with a six year old dude and it was just punishing, man!”

And with that, suddenly, our time is up. Like all manner of poets, mystics and magicians before him, Devin has tried to put the ineffable into word. He knows he can't do it but he's going to keep trying. Maybe one day, he'll do it. Either way we're in for a epic, epic treat.