What more can one possibly say about Devin Townsend that hasn't been stated countless times before? In Devin's incredibly diverse and far reaching musical universe everything is fair game. From creating over the top extreme metal with his band Strapping Young Lad to exploring different avenues of sound and genres (often within the same song) through his solo work both under his own name or The Devin Townsend Band, his back catalogue of work has been anything but predictable.
Significantly burnt out after the release of his Ziltoid The Omniscient album in 2007 Devin turned his focus towards production work and spending quality time with his family and newborn son. While on hiatus he went through a period of self examination which led him to give up the vices that he had relied on to fuel his creativity for much of his career. With these obstacles out of the way and with a much clearer focus he began writing again in earnest, and the results of this intense period of creativity has yielded enough material to fill four albums. 2009 marks a new beginning for Devin as he unleashes the first album Ki in his planned tetralogy under his newly christened Devin Townsend Project. Ki might surprise his legion of fans in that, for the most part it is a fairly subdued and atmospheric record devoid of any frequent outbursts of anger and aggression. Ki is the just the beginning however and Devin promises more surprises along the way, so strap yourself in as he explains the thought process behind the first installment of what collectively should prove to be his most eclectic musical endeavor to date.
SoT: I found it ironic that in a musical career that has thus far been quite diverse Ki is not only a real departure for you but it's also a new beginning at the same time.
Devin: Yeah I think even with the first song, which is called "A Monday" it definitely alludes to that. I think that the thing to also remember with this is that it's the first of a four record project. I think the project itself is the departure. Yes it is a new beginning in terms of the fact that I've been away for a couple of years, and the first thing back is definitely aesthetically and sonically different than what I've represented in the past. But what I think I'm tying to do with these four records in a lot of ways, is to clarify what I've done in the past, as someone who's sober now, like no drugs. I think with that in mind yes it's a new beginning as we say, but I also think that once this four record project is finished, once it's completed I think it will summarize the whole era.
SoT: You've described Ki as being a subtle, severe album and not overly heavy. This first installment is quite unique for you in the sense that any anger represented here is restrained, something you haven't really held back in the past.
Devin: I think that Ki, and this whole project is indicative of the past three years of my life, and in those past three years I've just gone through a lot of personal change. I quit drinking and drugs, I had a baby, quit the band and cut all my hair off. There were a lot of things that required a lot of discipline. I think for me that whole restraining of the anger, I think there's a lot of power that comes with that, because I hadn't experimented with that before. I think that in a lot of ways it's so gratifying to let it go as a person and even as an artist, just to be able to say fuck it, there's no accountability here. I'm just going to go for it and dam the torpedoes. The conclusion I came to once I went through these changes over the past three years, was that I was accountable for everything. As a result of holding back those emotions, on some levels it's really hard as a person, because you just want to let it go. However, I think there was a lesson in that for me, in that by holding it back, sometimes you find that it wouldn't have been in your best interest to let it go. It takes a couple of minutes and a couple of deep breaths to realize the ramifications that if I had let it go at that point, I'd be working overtime to try to rectify that. So Ki definitely has that as a theme, that kind of restraint but that being said, the restraint that's represented in this record also alludes to the fact that the next three records could go in any direction. Two of the records do let it go but in a way that's very aware of the fact that it is letting it go.
The next record Addicted and the following one Deconstruction are there as well to clarify a lot of music that I've done in the past. In the past, yeah absolutely I was really, really intoxicated for a lot of it and therefore by letting it go, you tend to lead your audience in directions, that if you're not feeling accountable for it – I feel at this point that I need to be able to clarify with these next records, and say complicated music is something that I'm predisposed to, absolutely. In the past a lot of that was colored by paranoia or fear, without even being aware of the fact that's was the motivator was. So these next two records after Ki are going to be really heavy and really complicated, but in a way deconstructing the need to do it in the first place.
SoT: Do you resent the role drugs have played in your creative process?
Devin: I don't think I have enough energy to resent it in all honesty. I'm happy with the person that I am and I definitely feel accountable for everything that I've done in the past, but I can't spend much time regretting anything. There have been some interviews that I've done in the past where people are talking about Strapping Young Lad and my reasons for not continuing that. I have very acceptable reasons in my own life, but they always say "Oh you must be angry at the past" or "You must be angry about this and that" and I'm thinking hey you make your own bed you know? As a result of that, spending too much time being angry about it is a waste of energy, energy that I could currently put into making music, which again clarifies and says well absolutely I may have used these directions before, based on me duping myself in a lot of ways. However, if I just left it at that it would be this open ended thing. I'm using this opportunity with this Devin Townsend Project and these four records, to be able to say here's one record like this record, but clear, here's one record like that record, clear. Hopefully what it will do, not necessarily for the audiences' benefit, but for my own, will be to prove to myself that yeah of course I'm predisposed to complicated music absolutely, but there's no real reason for you to mix the idea of that sort of drug induced paranoia into it. What that is doing is making you afraid of your own creative outlet, because it's mixed with something that is synthetic. So the third record Deconstruction is basically one of the most complicated and chaotic things I've ever done, but it has a lot of control to it. Thematically it's based around what your need is to embrace that chaos. Why are humans so enraptured by heaviness and chaos? I think the answer to that might be a lot simpler and more embarrassing than a lot of us think.
Sot: You've said that you spent many years stoned out of your mind, and while this yielded interesting results it may have misrepresented what you really wanted to say. Also for a long time you didn't know that you were Bi-Polar.
Devin: Here's another thing that I've concluded. At the very end of my tenure with SYL and touring, I was very vocal that I didn't want to tour or do interviews anymore. It took me a while to realize, typically it was after I had stopped smoking pot, that maybe a lot of the reasons why I didn't want to do that was because, if you mix marijuana with somebody who's predisposed to mental illness, no matter how many medications you're on, you're ultimately negating the effects. In a way it dupes you into thinking that this is actually what's right or currently real in your world. When I started getting rid of all those substances in my body I started realizing that of course I'm predisposed to a lot of things. In all honesty I was so vocal about the ideas of being Bi-Polar in the past, that I've chosen to not really talk about that publically at this point. What I will say is, when you take marijuana out of that equation I realized how much of that paranoia and delusion was based on that, not only marijuana but drinking as well. I think that these conclusions definitely yield a whole new approach for me. With Ki the point is to put something out that's subtle right off the top, just to show that I can do a lot of things chaotically, but I've also come to the conclusion that a lot of what I've done in the past has been so insistent on the audiences participation. I know that for myself man, my life is so crazy and chaotic, with births and deaths, family, relationships and all that shit. The last thing I really want my music to do at this point is to demand my attention.
SoT: Being a parent myself I can attest to the fact that it does change your outlook on life in many ways. Would you agree that becoming a father was also a big catalyst for the changes in your life?
Devin: Well yeah in one way. I think the change was on deck for awhile before the child. I think the ways that having a child affected me were much different than I assumed it was going to be. At first people were telling me that a choir of angels was going to sing when the baby came out, and that I would see God and all these nice things. As soon as the baby came out I remember just looking at him and thinking 'Oh wow, ok that's how dudes are made'. I used to remember thinking that I used to sit there with all my buddies smoking tons of joints, sitting on the rooftops and discussing the nature of the universe and we'd kind of just mentally masturbate and think how clever we were. As soon as the baby came out I was like "Dude I don't know shit". All of these things that you talk about in terms of infinity, math and quantum mechanics or any of this stuff that you kind of just ramble on about to make yourself feel clever, man you're so far away from it, like humans aren't even wired at this point in my opinion to even understand it. What I found was when the baby came, I didn't have an epiphany in the "Oh the beauty of it", it was more like "Oh I don't know shit" and "What am I going to do now?" In a lot of ways I think that if I hadn't of had the child I think I would have quit music all together, because I was kind of at that point. When he came out I was like "What do you want me to lift, because I have to support you". I tried a few jobs; I built a few things and did some producing. Then I came to the conclusion that what I do better than anything else is the thing that I'm afraid to do at this point, which is music. I thought that if that was the only thing I could do, and I have to support him, then I'll have to get to the root of why I'm afraid of this and sort it out, because if I don't then I'll be a liability not only to the audience but to my family. So I thought what's causing me paranoia? Obviously weed, so no more weed. What else is causing it? I'm paranoid about being pulled over after having too many glasses of wine or beer or whatever. So let's kill that fear of being pulled over when you're drunk by not being drunk.
SoT: Right just don't be doing it.
Devin: [laughing] Yeah, so each one of those things that I kind of eliminated from my reality ended up just giving me more confidence. When the confidence started coming back I had to ask myself why I was afraid to do music. It's because I'm afraid of what people think of it. I was thinking to myself that if I'm so afraid of how people perceive me then I must have such an incredibly high sense of self-importance. So I thought that was something I would have to get over, because in all honesty if you're doing something honestly as a musician, you're doing it in a way that you are confident to get behind, and if there is nothing in your system that's deceiving or mutating that intention, then not doing it is just not an option. It's what you do man. So I decided that through those three years of personal transformation, if you want to call it that, I wrote fifty or sixty songs in about four different styles. They were all written during that transformation time; therefore all of these records should be together. It starts chronologically with Ki being this kind of tense energy that could go many different ways.
When I was writing Ki, of course it's angry but it's quiet, which is because I didn't have a studio at the time and I didn't want to wake the baby when I was writing at midnight. I was writing this furious music but I had to whisper it. Then all of a sudden I got my own studio, I rented a room at least, and I started pounding out the rest of the ideas. I remember thinking to myself as I was writing Deconstruction, the third record, I just sat at the computer and the sparks were flying. I'm thinking "I love this" because it was like a symphony, it was amazing because it was so natural to me. But I thought to myself that I couldn't let people hear it, but why? I think it came down to the fact that I'm afraid of being successful. I'm afraid of the ramifications of being successful; because I think that on the same level that I'm afraid of failing. So you get stuck in this artistically constipated frame of mind. The reason why I decided to do all four records was just to say "Fuck it, just do it". If it's accepted great and if it's not well that's great too.
SoT: Just get over it and throw it out there.
Devin: Get over it exactly.
SoT: So do you have the basic outline of the next three albums already? What I mean is are you writing each of them as you go along or do you already have stuff recorded and ready to go, and is it just a matter of selecting the musicians who will play on each one?
Devin: I usually record skeletons and when I've got a really solid idea I kind of leave hints for myself in those demos. I might just throw down a really poor melody or version of the melody and then when I listen to it back later I'll remember "Oh right that melody, that's where I was going to put elephants on there or something". It's all done and ready to go. I slept for three hours last night because of a number of things. We had to do photos, the baby was crying and shit was broken because we're trying to move out of this one place, just life stuff. Then you come home after a twelve-hour day, you're tired and all of a sudden it's just overwhelming. It's like "Man I gotta start another record next week and I've got interviews in the morning". It seems so insurmountable. At the same time you change your diet and you eat a little healthier. You kind of get rid of those little crutches right? Then when the morning comes you're just "Oh man just start". If you don't get it all finished in the day then it just goes into the next one. Also I started taking weekends off because I think the whole idea of addiction is far reaching right? It definitely goes to work as well.
SoT: Yeah it doesn't have to be the typical addictions like sex, drugs and alcohol.
Devin: You could be addicted to your own suffering in a way. It's like you said, you actually said it in a way that I definitely hadn't thought of, and that's you definitely have to get over it. The best way to get over it is to just do it. If it fails well there's your fear of failure, great you got over that. You failed now what are you going to do?
SoT: At the end of the day you're not curing cancer you're just making music.
Devin: Exactly. That's the thing because when you talk about kids as well it definitely puts things into perspective. I think for years I was running under this self important frame of mind where your music is this incredibly important thing right? But I'll tell you something, when my grandfather died a little while back; the last thing I was thinking about was this fucking record. I'm predisposed to making music because that's what I do for whatever reason, and we can go as far into that as we want, but with myself at this point I just have to be honest and upfront about it. If I don't do it, I'm not going to be able to feed my family because really what else are you good at? You're qualified to work at a hamburger shack if you don't do this. So if you can't do this because you're afraid of it then you're just going to have to get over that fear somehow.
SoT: I mean you can still feel the importance of your music because but it's all a matter of keeping things in perspective.
Devin: Absolutely. It's that perspective that I think a lot of it (my music) lacked in the past. When I do listen to some of the old stuff, that's actually the first thing that I pick up out of it, is that lack of perspective. I don't know if its just because I'm getting older but there was a lot of things that when I was recording them, I could remember thinking that "This is really important thing for people to hear". But it might have been a really important thing for somebody to hear who's twenty seven, but for someone who's forty it might be "Man I'm fuckin' ten years past that". I think that goes back to Strapping Young Lad, and in many interviews I've been asked if I'll ever go back to SYL. Because the music is a direct representation of an emotional frame of mind, and in a lot of ways is an objective way for me in a lot of ways to kind of resolve those periods of my life, to go back to an energy that was absolutely appropriate to me when I was twenty five, when the intention of going through that energy was to resolve it, it doesn't make any sense. I also have to say that I'm very proud of what I've done in the past, through all the ups and downs and mistakes. They say that making a mistake is the best way to learn right?
Sot: The music you made was reflective of where you were at that time.
Devin: Totally. So for people to say that SYL is their favorite band and I have to do it. I'm thinking "I can't dude". It goes back to being a parody of yourself. What appeals to me about heavy music is when people are doing it from the heart.
Sot: As an artist and a human being you have to feel that you're moving forward.
Devin: Totally. You have to be honest as well right? I think that if you start to revert back to things that you've currently resolved, just so you can be part of some stupid club then people your age are just going to call you out on it. That being said though, chaotic and complicated music is still something that I'm into, now it just has to be represented in a way that's appropriate to me.
Sot: Since I've had my copy of Ki I must have listened to it from beginning to end no less than a dozen times.
Devin: Thank you man, that's great.
SoT: I've always felt that the most rewarding music for me is the kind with those multi-layers where you are able to hear something new and different each time. This is what has kept me coming back to it.
Devin: [laughing] I appreciate that.
SoT: It's ironic that we've been speaking about addictions because this album is addictive [laughing].
Devin: That's the thing, that's why the second record out of the four is called Addicted.
SoT: Maybe you should have called this one Subliminal.
Devin: [laughs] I think that's the key literally. I have had to come to the conclusion that I like music that works in different ways and on different levels. Again its like are you afraid to do something that is artistically over the top? At first I was afraid because I thought that people might take it deeper than what is healthy. However, I think that is also part of it, what you've done in the past, if you had just left it at that, then that's unhealthy for the audience. If you can use this opportunity as a way to say that it can go as deep as we want, but if you're in control of it and coming at it from a frame of mind that is in my own mind honorable. If you look back at The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky, do I put myself in that category, absolutely not, but that kind of idea was such an inspiration for me, to see someone take music on every dynamic level and represent that. The theme of it or whatever is a little more universal and like you said it's subversive or whatever. At this point I'm just interested in being the artist that I am. I'm not hung up at all on the shit that kind of perverted it in the past.
SoT: In your musical universe I get the feeling that nothing is off limits.
Devin: Absolutely. I think the thing is you just have to explain it. In the past one of the problems with myself was that I was so hung up on my own trip that when people would ask me to explain my motivations for this or that, I wouldn't have a good answer. I think that in a lot of ways that confused not only the audience but myself as well, because I would ask myself why I didn't have an answer. If somebody asks you the question "Why did you do that?" If you don't have a good answer, then in my opinion, at that point you don't have a reason to do it. You have to be accountable for everything you do. I think there's also the fear of being able to justify poor behavior based on saying " I'm crazy" or I'm unreachable", which in a way is just a defense mechanism to say that you can't explain it. The conclusion that I came to with doing this four record project was that if I'm going to do it then I have to be aware of why I'm doing it. If someone asks me any question then I have to provide an answer that's clear enough so my intentions are not distorted.
(Click here to read our review of Ki)