Few artists in metal have been as single-handedly influential and prolific in the late 90’s/2000’s as DEVIN TOWNSEND. Despite amassing a diehard fanbase and the high praise and respect of his peers, Devin‘s personal life was suffering. After taking a self-imposed sabbatical in conjunction with the end of STRAPPING YOUNG LAD, Devin went through a soul searching journey and a reevaluation of his life.
APESHIT spoke to the mad scientist of metal before his show in LA earlier this year. We’re happy to report that not only is Devin back with a renewed sense of purpose and inspiration, he’s here to be bigger and stronger than ever.
APESHIT: How was the NAMM show?
Devin: It was great. It was a lot easier to stomach this year rather than last year because I was prepared for it this year. Last year, I had no idea what I was getting into. It just punished me. [Laughs] This year, I was like, “I’m not getting punished by you anymore.” So I went there, we took control of it, and had a great time.
APESHIT: Did you see a lot of funny people in rock ‘n roll costumes and stuff?
Devin: You know what I find is that the people that aren’t signed and don’t have a record out, there the ones that dress up. Everyone else is like over it. But in a way, it’s a different perspective on it really. When you focus on the negatives aspects of anything really, then it all suddenly snowballs into this really ugly thing. On the last day [of NAMM], I was looking at these people, they all have families. They’re all trying to make money, essentially. Some people want fame for some reasons and others want money for other reasons. But ultimately, the NAMM show is humans selling things to other humans. Ultimately, when you look at it from that point of view, there’s a certain degree of desperation but at the same time, we’re all just trying to feed the family, even the people in the funny costumes.
APESHIT: Now that the tour has been through some dates now, how does it feel to be back?
Devin: Awesome! I love it! Honestly, I’ve never done a tour sober. Well, I have been with [Steve] Vai back in the day. But now I wake up, eat healthy, wake up in the morning, do a bit of exercise, have some green tea, have some breakfast, listen to my iPod, answer my emails, play a show with a bunch of cool people to a bunch of cool people. I really enjoy it. The dubious nature of what we’re doing right now is we’ve played nine shows total in our entire tenure as a band. It’s not like we had the opportunity to silently go out and play. It’s so balls to the wall in terms of schedule. And our first show ever was the first show of this tour. Obviously, there are people who have an emotional investment in either disliking me or being uncomfortable with what I do…people who seem to want it to fail. But my whole thing is that’s always going to be there because the people you’re playing for are not the people that dislike you. But of course there’s always going to be people that dislike you. The people you’re playing for are the people that like you. The people who have been waiting to see it. The people who pay your bills essentially, right? So now, to be able to go out there and say, “Sure, our first week was rough.” Click tracks coming to the front of the house, line checks…like any tour you have to figure out the process, right? But now that that’s over and done with, we can get a head of steam behind us, man.
I have a very solid vision of what I want this project to be. I want it to be a very big thing. I want visuals and a choir and huge shows. I also don’t want it to be the “rockstar” thing. I want the do-it-yourself/everybody’s involved with it kind of vibe. But the whole process now is just trying to figure out how I can do this realistically. And this tour is a good start for that because we’re kind of able to make it happen with cool bands, good people, and it’s really cool.
APESHIT: I just want to say that I’m very happy for you to be able to get clean and sober. I’ve read and seen other interviews and you seem to be very happy.
Devin: Thank you! Cool! It’s funny you said that because when I first quit drinking and smoking, I felt so sorry for myself for like a year and half because I wasn’t partying. It’s not the kicking it that’s hard. It’s not the staying off it that’s hard. It’s learning to like life better without it that’s hard. Now that I’m to the point where I rely heavily on that clarity, so if I were to drink or do drugs right now, it would totally fuck everything up right now. I’m happy. Yeah, I’m happy. It’s such a weird experience to be happy…but I am. It’s like, “I’m on stage and I really enjoy this.” It’s not a burden. It’s like I’m very happy to have the opportunity to do this, to go on this tour with these people. I’m lucky so to not enjoy it for that half hour [while on stage] is like some strange martyr syndrome. If you’re not enjoying it, go home dude. [Laughs]
APESHIT: In 2002, I was hanging out with you on your tour bus with DARK TRANQUILLITY and you were playing Accelerated Evolution for us while we were all smoking a joint. That’s basically all I remember that night before things got blurry. [Laughs]
Devin: Yeah! Here’s the thing that’s so funny…for example, I was in Paris 20 times but I never went to the Eiffel Tower…ever. I was too busy smoking dope. On the last tour, we did a promo tour and I was like, “You know what? Shit, I’ve never seen Paris. Let’s go for a walk.” I was like, “This is awesome! This is another part of the world. I’ve been here more times than I care to remember. But I’ve never experienced it.”
So to have that sense of clarity…the funny thing is how obvious it is. Do you want to experience it? Do you truly want to engage in what you’re doing? Then don’t be an idiot. Don’t complain about coming off drugs like it’s the hardest thing in the world. Dude, you put yourself there. That’s your choice to go there. So I find that a lot of times people put themselves in a position that when they have to quit, it’s like this self-sabotaging thing where they’re like poor me. It’s like, “What about poor you!?! You shouldn’t have started! Get over it dude because it’s like life is too cool and music is too cool to spend it completely oblivious of the experience.”
APESHIT: Was there ever a point when you were taking your break where you felt like you weren’t going to come back to music again?
APESHIT: That must’ve been a really crazy feeling, right?
Devin: No. Honestly, I like manual labor. I’m good at it. When I wasn’t doing this [music], we built a studio. We built this garage. I just remember thinking to myself that I like going to the beach. I like spending time in the mountains. I like going for walks. I like hanging out with my cat. I like playing acoustic guitar. And I was fine to not do this again.
But it was actually Peavey that contacted and said, “Dude, you got to do this again.” I was like, “Well, I’m producing so I’m OK.” “Why are you producing? Only a handful of these bands you’re producing aren’t making you age. Why aren’t you out there doing this again?” “Well, I’m afraid of myself. I’m afraid of success and I’m afraid of failure.” So I was never really able to jump off the cliff. I’d get to the edge and go, “No, no, no, no, no.” But it’s funny. After having a baby and the drama that comes with real life, my grandparents dying and my friends dying, babies being born and financial problems…so let me get this straight, you’re afraid of that? Afraid of succeeding? Get over that…real quick!
So when Peavey came to me, they were like, “Why don’t you come down to NAMM?” They’ve been so supportive like with the guitar that came out this weekend…and all these people saying, “Go for it! We’ll support you if you don’t play ‘martyr,’ like a total baby about this. If you start getting tough about this, then you’ve got our support.” Well that process in itself has taken a long time to actually learn what part of my personality is sabotaging itself and what part of it is just me being afraid. So the more I realized that a lot of my fears are completely in my own head, the easier it is to get out there and enjoy it. And when you’re enjoying it, there’s always going to be a faction of people who say, “Well, I don’t like him. It’s too awkward. It’s not congruent with what I like. It’s not heavy enough. It’s not technical enough. It’s not melodic enough. It’s not poppy enough. Whatever.” As soon as I got to the point of “Well, I love it”…regardless of whether or not it succeeds or whether or not people think it’s cool or not, I love it. And here’s me doing it to the best of my abilities and I got a vision and I’ve got other people who are my friends and allies, who all kind of back each other and pull their weight.
Ultimately, if it does succeed, you’re succeeding on your own terms, right? And when you are successful, and this is the hypothesis, you are successful at something you are comfortable with as opposed to being successful at an exaggerated part of your personality that you can’t live with down the road, which is what STRAPPING [YOUNG LAD] was becoming for me or you become successful at something that you realize down the road, “I actually didn’t want that and now I’m tied to it.”
So this transition period has been very educational.
APESHIT: I just think that hearing you talk about this, this whole new period of coming out of retirement is going to be really great.
Devin: I’m feeling it, man. Coming out of this phase for me…if you can deal with this, you can deal with anything. If you’re afraid of yourself, then you’re never going to reach what you can do. If you’ve got the potential to do something awesome and you don’t do it because you’re afraid of something, then it’s like…
APESHIT: What a waste!
Devin: What a waste! It took me a couple years and honestly, it was mostly about me getting sober because then there’s none of the games. The more distorted people are, the more they want to play games…head games or power trips or whatever. When you’re not distorted, you’re like, “I don’t want to play that. I don’t have any time for that. I don’t have any time for your drama anymore so see ya!”
APESHIT: You did the IR8 project with Jason Newsted and he got into big trouble with the rest of METALLICA for it. How did it feel when you found out that that tape went around the world and got fans excited?
Devin: My relationship with Jason was just so strange, man, because we were so close and then we just never spoke again. Honestly, it’s because I did acid at his house for the first time and totally turned into a banana on him. It was his acid. I don’t know what to say. [Laughs]
It’s just…I love Jason and I haven’t talked to him in 10 years. I think the IR8 thing came out and he was just so defensive of it. He was like, “You know, I stood up for that tape.” I remember saying to him, “But I don’t really even like it.”
At the time, I was like, “Let’s do something for real! Let’s not make a demo of fuck around shit. Let’s get together and be a band.” But I think that was pretty presumptuous of me to kind of assume that Jason Newsted would want to be in my band, right?
After that, it got really like awkward. I don’t know if I scared him or I just pissed him off or whatever. But dude, I just never spoke to him again.
He came to the show that STRAPPING [YOUNG LAD] played [in San Francisco in 2002].
APESHIT: I remember seeing him there.
Devin: I’m an awkward dude, right? And I’m a pretty emotional dude. Jason‘s a real logical type cat from what I remember. Solid dude. I think my take on acid was probably pretty difficult to swallow. But I don’t know. I’m totally hypothesizing. It was great playing with Jason. I love the guy.
APESHIT: When you first set out to make a four album work, did you already decide to ask Anneke Van Giersbergen to sing on what would become Addicted?
Devin: No, actually. I knew that I wanted a strong female presence but it wasn’t Anneke. I had no idea it was going to be Anneke. But again, I don’t know if I believe in fate or free will or determinism or something in the middle. But regardless, about two weeks before I was going to record the vocals for Addicted, Anneke sent me a mail out of the blue and said, “Hey, my name is Anneke. Here’s a youtube clip of me signing one of your songs. If you ever want to get together and work, that would be great.” So I said, “That would be great! Fly out next week!” [Laughs] I wrote some songs with her for her record and I sang on it. She’s an angel. She just kind of came in and did perfect vocals on my record.
APESHIT: Do you think you’re going to record with her again in the future?
Devin:: This tour is a test to see what the reaction will be. Ultimately, I want the people involved with this project to be able to make a living off of it. Right now, it’s difficult of course. But I’m not going to involve Anneke until I think I can pay her what she’s worth. She’s got a son and a family and a band. I want her to participate in this project and not just as a favor.
I’m open. Addicted maybe takes off and people say, “We really want that.” So I say, “Here, Anneke come on out and let’s do this properly and comfortably and so our voices are right.” You know what I mean?
I’d love to do it. I’d love to do it. But again, it’s just we’re all closing in on 40 and we just can’t jump in the van anymore.
APESHIT: Can you give any more details on Destruction and Ghost aside from what you provided on Myspace?
Devin: Deconstruction is where the crest of the concept of the whole DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT/personal change period…Basically, I’m through it in a lot of ways. I’m just picking up the slack by doing it. Like I said earlier, the worst enemy is you. You are the devil. You are your own devil. You are your own self-sabotaging entity. All your fears are manifested by you. Again, the way to confront that is to confront yourself. Whether…if you have like sexual abuse, mental illness or alcohol problems or drug problems…these things that are so inherently personal that you bury them and cover it with either aggression or machismo or making yourself feel pain or whatever it is. That’s what Addicted is about. You’re addicted to your pain. Getting through is the key. So Deconstruction has ended up being the crest of that. Now the character meets himself and takes apart his motives. Why? Was it because of this? Was it because of this? And the conclusion he comes to is embarrassing.
And Ghost, the next record…after all that chaos…Deconstruction is incredibly fucking crazy, crazy record. After he goes through that and finds out what he needed to know, the next record [Ghost] is a quiet record. Almost a country/folk record. Him and his buddies playing guitar on the beach.
APESHIT: Do you think you’ll ever do a fun album like Punky Bruster again?
Devin: Oh yeah! Totally! I’ve got so many ideas. Between touring and family and bands and programming effects, there’s only so many hours in the day. And really at the end of each night, I like to watch a movie. I’m hoping that if I can keep my health up, and fate blesses me with several more years of life, there’s nothing but possibilities.
APESHIT: The songs themselves on the album are better than the bands you parodied. [Laughs] What if you guys sold out for reals and really went for it!?
Devin: We’ll see right? It has to have a sense of purpose of the whole scheme of what I’ve done. There’s no plans of selling out necessarily but I think what I choose to do in the future is based on circumstance. So we’ll see what happens.