Fireworks Magazine Online 60 - Interview with Devin Townsend


Interview by Andy Brailsford

Devin Townsend is, to me, a fascinating character, an excellent musician and an intelligent thinker. I had hoped to do an interview with him when he played Manchester on the last tour, but I was quite disappointed when illness prevented that. So, when I got a message asking if I wanted to speak to Devin at his Download appearance, I didn’t hesitate

So the first thing I want to say is that last year you headlined stage 3 on the Friday, I think it was, oh and I loved it when you forgot the words and you just told the audience to carry on,. I loved that…

Yeah yeah yeah. I don’t remember that but it doesn’t surprise me though.

...But this year you’re playing on the Jägermeister stage.

Nice, right? We just keep getting downgraded because I’ve got this whole writing process that I‘m working on and in order to keep legit and for the streets I need to keep my humility intact, so I asked specifically to be on a stage that’s three times less…... Actually what it is, to be honest, I think there’s a thing that if you’ve played one year, they don’t want you to play the next year. So we had a hard time to get on here but because I was in the area, it gives the opportunity to do something that wasn’t planned so it’s an acoustic show.

Why were you in the area?

For Download? No. Well, we did the Swedish rock festival and I’m hosting this Golden Gods awards the day after tomorrow or something.

You’re hosting?

Yeah, see how I threw that in there? I’m like, I’m hosting the Golden Gods awards.

Is that a bow tie thing?

No, I’ve got a whole outfit. To be honest, I’ve spent so long in the UK recently that I’m surprised I’m even invited to party at all. It’s like, it’s that guy again. So after these two shows, the Jagermiester stage and the Golden Gods hosting job, it’s a good chance you won’t see me again for another year. I’ll disappear into the wind. Like a wind disappearing guy.

We were supposed to see you in Manchester but got a cold that knocked me off my feet so I was glad to get this interview today.

This is going to be ten times better. Forty, fifty times better.

The show that you did at the round house….

The circus.

Is that coming out on DVD?

Yeah. We finished, in a sense we finished it this morning. We OK’d the video elements and the commentary and the documentary etc. It was a huge project and there’s a ton of different versions and it’s taken longer than I expected but, proudly, considering the amount of content it’s much less than it probably could have been. But I really think it’s cool.

You’ve surprised me saying that, because how long have you been in the music now, and you have just said ‘It took longer than expected.’. It always takes longer than expected.

Well I’ve been in a fortunate position of doing everything myself so it usually takes less time to get something done, than maybe a band that’s more of a democracy, whereas I can sort of fart around at home and then I go into a studio to finish. In a regular band situation, the bass player may have some shit to sort out or something and then the democratic process slows the whole thing. But that’s usually not been an affliction of mine, so the Retinal Circus project has been surprising to me, not only because it’s longer but in order to actualise it, it’s required a lot more people. I’ve never been in that situation where it’s beyond me to finish it on my own. So I think that’s the moral of the story, the more people you involve, the longer it takes. There’s a lot of people involved in that one.

Having seen what it’s evolved into, are there any thoughts about maybe I might…….?

I’ve got thoughts about ideas and shows and careers. I’ve got more thoughts than I’ve got most other things. But, again, I think I’ve come to the end of this sort of period of my career where I’ve been relentlessly throwing content to people. So I think the next year, it’ll be the situation of letting people absorb it and hopefully the Retinal Circus DVD will kind of summarise the situation so when I do put out the next record and I do start becoming as active as I have been touring wise, hopefully people’s perceptions will be a bit more in line with reality as opposed to that weird bald guy that’s yelling at us for no reason.

Like you just said about your ideas, last time I interviewed you, I think it was at Rock City, when I said to you, ’Have you got anything planned’ and you said ‘there’s always something planned.

Always, totally yeah. I think if there’s not ideas and plans, you’re not motivated, right? Sometimes, at any particular moment, if someone says “let’s do an idea”, I can tell people “let’s do that one, do that one, do that one”. So they’re all kind of in a queue at the moment and whichever one seems the most appropriate is the one that gets the attention next.

You’ve sort of taken me back in time a little bit because you make me feel like when I was younger in the seventies when I used to really look forward to buying the next album by, say Floyd or Genesis and it’s the same thing because you’re never quite sure what you’re gonna get.

No, you’re right.

There’s always something and I listen to the albums and it’s where the hell do you get it from?

Well, if you think that’s shocking wait ‘til you hear the next one. The next thing I’ve done is like, I’m not afraid but I’m a little concerned on a purely curious level. We’ve accumulated a bunch of people with this record who have not been familiar with what I’ve done in the past and I have a feeling that this next record will confuse the hell out of most people, but unfortunately I can’t let that be a motivating factor in which way the wind blows. I have to do what I feel is important for me to do and I hope that the fact that at least I’m being honest about which direction is appropriate for me and will propel what I do professionally so at least we can keep paying our rent.

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Because you’ve got so many ideas, how do you think right, that’s the one...

Well, it kind of decides for me. It’s the only thing I’m interested in. I have a lot of ideas in the system. I have an idea for an orchestral thing, I have a heavy thing, I have an idea for a poppy thing, I have an idea for an electronic thing, I’ve got an idea for a country thing and then a make a bunch of demos and the one project I keep thinking about is the one that obviously wants to be focussed on. If I try to focus on another one, it comes across as insincere because I’m thinking about the other one. It’s twofold. In one sense it’s that and I follow it wherever it goes but the other side of the equation is that it’s usually a reaction to what came before, like Epicloud, it’s this big quasi- commercial… it’s, like, slick, eighties hard rock sort of vibe. So as soon as this was done and I spent months trying to make it as good as I could, the last thing I want to hear is that. As soon as it was done I was, like, “Whoa, man, I’m done with that.” So what became my primary artistic motivation following that was pretty much the opposite and it’s probably going to be the same way as soon as this project is done.

So if you had to decide which area you would go into next, would it be heavy or a more progressive, melodic sort of …..

Well the Casualties record served as a side line that I have been working on for three years, since before Epicloud, is like a very focussed version of like Ki, but not nearly as heavy and a lot darker and a lot more like, production wise, I’ve taken cues from Radiohead to (inaudible) and it’s like a haunted, fifties Johnny Cash, but that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. I didn’t make casualties so people could crank it up in their car in the middle of sunset strip. It’s a compromise. It’s for listening to on your own, in the middle of the night, quietly. That’s what it’s for. If you try listening to it in another way, it’s going to be lost on you. So that’s what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear this late night thing that creates an atmosphere. So I did it. Now that that’s finished, the next thing is very obviously a Ziltoid record so it’s an extension of that record but a lot more metal…

It would have to be…

Yeah, and a rocky horror picture show theme and from there I can do a ton of things. Those are the two things that have reared their heads.

That’s the thing. When you do something like you’ve just said, that the next one is something you listen to on your own late at night, you don’t just view music from your side, you view music from the listeners side as well. To an extent, most musicians don’t tend to think about that.

Well maybe it’s because I don’t feel I should claim ownership to anything. I don’t feel like music is written by anybody. I’ve always liked the idea of a collective unconscious. I’ve always liked the idea of Carl Jung or whatever that there is no such thing as an original song or an original thought. As a musician, if you look at it that way, my job is to actualise the things that I’ve become aware of rather than say, “that’s my song” so my reaction to what I hear is from the perspective of the listener. It’s not about the fact that I’m the creator. So as I’m writing something, I’m, like, “This is how I want it to be heard by me”… so while I’m recording it and writing it, I spend very little time actually paying attention to it. We get through the editing, recording and putting some words to it and most of the process is very much on auto-pilot and penultimately I sit back and listen in the environment I think it’s suited to and I can say to people that’s how you’re supposed to listen to it. I can go online using forums saying, “Don’t look at Casualties like Epicloud or it’s not going to work at all. It’s gonna sound like however you want to hear it however if you listen to how it’s supposed to be listened to, I think it’s amazing.

That’s the thing about all your albums. As I said, you are never quite sure what you are going to get next, but when you talk about it you are always up-front and honest.

Yeah, and I think it would be a liability if I was lying to you. Well the hip thing to do at the moment is Metalcore, not that it is of course, but as an example, so I think I’ll make one of those records so I can fit in. Even if the production is right, even if the songs were engaging, it would still be hollow on some level because it’s not what I’m drawn to, but if I’m drawn towards something, then part of listening to it with an open mind also includes the fact that that’s exactly what I want to say. So I think there’s an honesty and legitimacy to it that smooth’s over the fact of “what the fuck is this?”

Back to this album, when you incorporated the gospel singers what did they make of it?

I believe in the spiritual nature of life, but I don’t claim to know anything. I don’t know. Shit anybody who says they know anything about anything is lying to you. It’s the thing with the Princess Bride, they are either lying to you or trying to sell something. So my views on spirituality and religion or philosophy or whatever is based on me throwing random things out saying, “what do you think of this? Here’s an idea.” But it may change tomorrow. So going to the choir, who were a Christian choir and saying, “I’m not a Christian, at all. However the things that I’m drawn to are, I guess kind of similar. But if you have any problems with me doing this and incorporating your voices then don’t do it. I don’t want to offend you. I don’t want you to come away from this thinking that I’m ironically trying to use you for my own gain. So here’s the lyrics, here’s the song. If you want to do it I think it will be awesome. If you don’t, that’s fine too.” But they went away and listened to it and they came back and said, “They think it’s great. They’re gonna do it”. In fact they said bullshit on ‘Liberation’ as they were so amped up in the studio. I said to them, “You guys don’t have to swear if you don’t want.” But you could tell they wanted to do it so when they finally did it, I was pumped.

I have to say, you’ve got to be one of the most honest musicians I’ve ever met.

Well, thank you. I think it’s, maybe that comes back to the fact that I perceive what I do from the listener’s point of view. There’s a lot of times I’ll make something up and I’ll be on the fence about it. I don’t know if I’d buy that, but it’s what wanted to come out so I did it. I’ve got nothing invested in trying to sell my stuff. I really don’t. Often people say to me, ‘Why should we care?’ I’m like, y’know, I don’t give a shit. You don’t have to. Not only that but if you want to hear it, it’s on Spotify or you can download. Then I can pay my rent. That’s ultimately I’ve got a great life. I’m very happy. I don’t need more than that. I don’t need to be as big as AC/DC or Guns and Roses back in their heyday. That kind of life strikes me as being incredibly taxing. I wanna go to the beach. I want to go bike riding. I want to hang out with my buddies. I want to live a life and I’m fortunate enough to be able to do that in some modest sense by making music. I mean that’s the dream. I don’t care about what it’s like. I totally understand the people who like what I do. It totally makes sense to me.

You must have also been very pleased with the reaction you are getting?

Yeah, they are very forgiving.

You’re very self-deprecating aren’t you?

Well y’know, I’m trying to change that. I think self-deprecating is one way to look at it. But I’m professionalist right? Is that a word? The irony of that is that we’re so far from perfect that it’s like this perpetual kind of like, engine of discontent which keeps the wheels moving.

When you started, if someone had told you that you would have your own model of guitar, what would you have thought of it then?

I would have loved it. I think at the time I would have loved it. But again it’s like after a while, it’s like, what did Woody Allen say, ‘Eighty percent of winning is just showing up,’ and I think that if it had happened at 21 I would have had an erection that would have lasted until I was 30. But it happened when I was 36 so by that point I was like, “Ahh, cool”. Basically it’s just like, “That guys good for x amount of sales. Put his name on something.”

Yeah, if you’ve been somebody for a while…

If the industry in some small sense, is like “well that guy’s not going to give up. So okay, here’s a pass” You can’t eat from that tray, but you can eat from that tray, thanks for showing up. At the end of the day, it’s enough to pay the bills.

So on the Jägermeister stage. It’s going to be acoustic?


So I’m curious to know actually what you’re going to come out with on acoustic.

Well, I think it’s a good, not sign off, but I’ve been doing so much in the UK that I feel I need to disappear for a while. So I think it’s a good opportunity to come out without the production, no apes jumping around and trapeze dancers and fifteen laptops. I’ll be, like, “This is what do I do?” I think I’m comfortable in that environment too. I’m okay with being vulnerable to be honest. I think that the nature of how I’ve established myself lends itself to being completely protected. So if I do sign out, I welcome it.


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