Never in a million years did I think I’d be sitting across from Devin Townsend asking him about stuff that I wrote in my notebook but that’s just where I found myself on October 14th as the Devin Townsend Project rolled into Worcester for the Rock n Shock festival at the Palladium. Join us as Mr. Townsend discusses how his four album project came to be, what the future holds, and other nuggets of wisdom from the former Strapping Young Lad frontman.
1. How did you come up with the concept for four completely different sounding albums? Was it something that had been brewing for awhile or did you wake up one morning and say “I have to do this!”?
(Laughs) Well, I wish it was that romantic. Anytime I write music it’s just a reflection of what’s going on with me so typically every year or two there’s a record that comes out that’s sort of the riffs and ideas I’ve had during a certain period of my life, right, so lyrically or production-wise it always reminds me of that. With this four record thing, there was a big change for me in terms of life: I had a kid, I quit drinking and smoking, and quit the band (Strapping Young Lad)… just a lot of things that required me to process things in ways I’ve typically not had to. I think at first I was just going to write a single record. And then I found that the ideas that I had were so disparate that they were having a hard time all going in one place and then I thought, well, if I make these four records I can manage to let each thing breathe but also I think I could (maybe through the records) explain how I’ve managed to find myself where I am artistically. After Strapping Young Lad, a lot of people were like: “Why would you do that?” With these records I was like “This I why I did that”
2. Do you have a favorite?
I think ultimately Ki or Ghost. Ghost is the one I find myself listening to the most just because it’s not an invasive record. Even Ki sometimes demands my attention in a way that I’m not currently really comfortable giving to it.
3. You’re bringing the entirety of these albums to life on stage in Europe soon? What has the process been like?
A pain in the ass. I think it’ll go well and I think once it’s done it’ll be, for me personally, a landmark in my own trip because the past five years of effort and change and all this would be summarized by it. It is a lot of work.
4. There’ve been lots of guests over the course of these albums, how did you decide who you wanted for the live performances?
We couldn’t get everybody obviously so I’m doing the guests from Deconstruction with puppets and then Anneke’s (van Gierdbergen) coming and Dirk’s (Verbeuren) coming. There’s certain people that are key to making it work.
5. Is there someone you’re dying to work with that you haven’t already?
Not necessarily I don’t think. I’m just taking it as it goes and I’m definitely happy to be active but in terms of what the future holds, I’ve got a focus and a vision of what I want it to be and really in order for me to get to that point it’s just one step at a time and every step I just have to make sure is completed well and hopefully at some point we’ll end up there, right?
6. How is playing live now different than when you first began with Steve Vai and Strapping Young Lad?
Well, I enjoy it now because I’m not pretending to be anything. Even in the past I wasn’t necessarily pretending but what I’ve done in the past is typically one thing to the exclusion of everything else so occasionally you’re in that frame of mind but when you’re not it takes a lot of effort to pretend it, I guess. If I’m going to pretend I’m doing something, I’d much rather it be something that’s in a positive frame of mind than something uber-negative. Now it’s a good place to be in and I’m happy. I like it. I think performing is good. It’s tiring sometimes and physically more demanding as I get older than it used to be.
Strapping started as this middle finger to everything, right? Then when that becomes your identity, you’re that guy. I was that guy when I was 23, but I’m like 40 now. It took a lot of energy to spend your day getting ready and making sure it’s all good and then all of that energy goes into telling people to fuck off?
7. If you could play anywhere in the world, what would be your ideal venue to play?
Bigger the better. I think for that vision I spoke of earlier….I guess it’s two fold, on one hand I like playing acoustic guitar in the background when no one’s paying attention but conversely I like it when it’s the most amount of people possible with the biggest choir, the biggest orchestra, just unbelievable amounts of production. I think the theater element of that really appeals to me. There’s an element to playing clubs that’s really cool but what I’m hoping to do eventually is to make it really theatrical as sort of an event.
8. With a catalog as vast as yours, how do you build a set list each night? Personal preference? Fan favorites? A little of both?
I talked to a bunch of people who were at the show last night because on this tour we’ve been trying to play songs that we’ve never played before. It’s one thing to construct a set that you know is going to do something emotionally and then to hold that and play it every night, there’s a level of confidence you have when you’re performing it. But at this stage in the game, specifically in the States, a lot of the people that are really vocal supporters come to several shows at a time. If you’re playing the same show, the people who are backing you the most are getting hosed. On this tour we’ve been trying to change the set up and some nights it’s worked and some nights it’s been no momentum so I asked the guys last night: “Well, what would you prefer to see from a band? Experimentation?” It seems to be overwhelmingly at this point that people are like, at this level, just play a bunch of stuff and figure it out and then if it takes it to the next level, focus on doing that.
It’s hard to make a different set every night and what about the people in my mind that have never seen you and they come see some flubbed set because you’re trying to keep it fresh. That’s definitely something I’m trying to figure out now and I’m trying to get the band involved and what we may end up doing is get a framework and fluctuate certain things within that.
9. Have you ever thought about adding an SYL song to your set or is the door closed on that chapter of your life?
The door’s never closed and I think part of the four record project is making peace with that in a way but not with this group of guys. If I was to potentially do a ‘best of’ at a one off show or something and I could convince Gene (Hoglan, drummer SYL) to be involved again then sure, but it wouldn’t be Strapping and it wouldn’t be DTP, it would be something separate.
10. You’re very active on both Twitter and Facebook, how has social media changed how you react with fans?
I had this awakening in this weird way the other night when we did the VIP and there were these people that had come to the last VIP and they had just travelled 6 hours from a Dream Theater show and they’ve got all the merch from it and I’m thinking “Man, these are the people that make this work”.
I think in the ’80’s there was this real sense of ‘you guys are lucky that we’re doing this’ but in a lot of ways I’ve just been overwhelmed over the past couple of weeks at how much effort people put in to allowing musicians like myself to continue. You get a hip-hop or a pop artist that are selling millions and millions of records and endorsing Pepsi or whatever and I think they can afford in a certain sense to not have to participate with the people who listen to their music. But honestly, for me, it’s really gotten to the point where I’m aware of the fact that without those very vocal audience participants that I’m lucky enough to have there’s no way I could do this. There’s no way I could do this. So I think that social media is at least a way for me to try and pull away some of the smoke and mirrors which I’ve never been interested in. A lot of people are fascinated with thinking that maybe musicians are a different breed or that we’re born with the ability to do something really cool when in fact it’s just one thing leading to another and everything ultimately starts from nothing. I think that being able to talk to people in a little bit more of a direct way allows them to see that you’re an idiot and that there’s not a lot to this other than that.
11. What is your proudest musical achievement so far?
Staying here, I think, and managing after 20 years to be doing it. In the last year, my career has taken more strides than it has in 20 years and I have my shit together now. I think if Strapping had ever gotten to that next level it would’ve eaten me alive. The fact that I’m still here and I feel stronger and more confident than ever I think is probably my proudest moment.
12. What’s next for you? Can you tell us a little about the box set coming out?
It’s actually 8 discs, a 75-page book and we’ve got these 4 shows in London and there’s gonna be DVD’s. There’s a ton of things going on. I encourage people who are actively supporting what we do financially…we put a lot of effort into making it cool so it’s not like we’re just trying to milk it but at the same time I also encourage people that don’t have money to feel free to get it however they want. I want people to hear it. Next, I’ve got a million ideas…well, maybe not a million. I think there’s gonna be a lot of music for me in some way or another…I’ve got some plans for Ziltoid….but, I mean it changes so rapidly and I think, for me, at this point making plans doesn’t make a lot of sense.
13. Have you seen The Avengers trailer yet?
Never even heard of it.
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