Latest releases: Deconstruction and Ghost (Inside Out/EMI)
Devin Townsend pleasantly apologies for getting on the line with a mouthful of chips, but who am I to begrudge the man a few minutes to feed himself during yet another busy promotional schedule? The hard-working Canadian is on the phone for a few minutes to talk about his appearance at the since-aborted Soundwave Revolution and his latest back-to-back releases Deconstruction and Ghost. These two companions to the previous Ki and Addicted are the completion of a suite of recordings Townsend had hinted at more than a decade ago.
“While I was doing Strapping [Young Lad] there was always the knowledge that I would be doing something like I’m doing now,” he says, when I mention he had talked about this project at least as early as the time SYL was released in 2003. “But I needed to finish that, because I’d commited to that.”
Commitment is an important thing to the 39-year old musician. It is what kept him doing the relentlessly intense Strapping Young Lad for much longer than he possibly believed he could actually do it, even after publically calling time on the band at least once.
“It’s very important for me to follow through on things,” Townsend says. “I believe that commitment is essential in terms of someone’s artistic process whether that means commiting to an idea, commiting to a contract, commiting to a spouse… whatever it is. Because regardless of the problems that arise from that, it obliterates the options that make you second-guess your decisions, right? And for me, when I was doing Strapping, I was commited to it, and I was gonna finish it. Even to the point where, after City, I was unsure how I was going to muster the emotional drama that was required for that band. But I did.”
As mentioned, throughout that era Townsend often ruminated about creating something beyond what he was doing then, something that would be as expansive and emotional as it would be violent and chaotic.
“[I] was under the assumption and the awareness that what I want to do eventually with my music is do something that covers the gamut of my emotions, that is theatrical and is sonically in a place that’s not exclusively one thing,” he says.
When Strapping Young Lad was eventually brought to a close, he took a break from music after completing Ziltoid the Omniscient. Shaving his head and giving up the booze and smokes, Townsend began to systematically remove a tribe of monkeys from his back that had climbed there, he believes, because of the fear he had of himself. The Devin Townsend Project albums were his therapy, forcing him to confront his demons in order to leave them behind once and for all.
“That fear of myself ended up manifesting itself in a lot of things that were unhealthy and unnecessary. So by virtue of addressing them throughout these records, like through Deconstruction or Ghost or Addicted, and then confronting them, I feel like my options were either to obliterate that side of my personality and in a way pretend it never existed. You know, do the Born Again trip,” Townsend explains. “Or just come to terms with it and with any of the bullshit that it’s caused me. And that’s obviously the direction that makes the most sense, artistically, for me in my life and has led me to a place where not only am I comfortable with my past in Strapping Young Lad or any of it, but very proud of it too. And I think that regardless of what anybody feels, I can move on and make a statement in the future that is free of any of that baggage and bullshit without necessarily having had to remove it from my life.”
Devin Townsend certainly sounds like a changed man. When we’ve spoken on previous occasions, he’s been incredibly polite but always with the ghost of mania in his voice. Today, he sounds perfectly at ease, with himself and with the world. The chaotic structure, the intensity and the autobiographical nature of Deconstruction appears to have cleansed and rejuvenated a remarkable artist who, a few years ago, almost seemed on the very edge of totally burning out.
“What Deconstruction stands for is what the name implies,” he begins seriously. “It’s about taking apart the addictions that, I think, define me. And that addiction can be viewed as something as obvious as drugs and alcohol, you know, sex and productivity, or fear, or anger, or attachment to your physical world, or whatever. I think that the things that we become addicted to, […] are deeper than we give them credit for. I think we end up defining ourselves with them. That is what became a problem with me I think.”
Quite literally then, Deconstruction was Townsend taking apart his addictions, fears and self-doubts and his attempt to examine the philosophy of the need to control one’s environment, and the futility of it. Townsend focused that aspect of human nature through the metaphor of a cheeseburger, which Satan gives to the album’s protagonist to help reveal the secrets of the universe. But the cheeseburger can’t provide the answers, because the hero of the tale is a vegetarian.
“I chose a cheeseburger because it was completely absurd,” Townsend admits. “The point I was trying to make with that is, we spend so much time trying to figure your world, you’re trying to figure out your mind and the people around you and try to control it, that, ultimately when you extend that and try to observe it from an objective point of view, you come to the conclusion that it’s ridiculous. It’s ludicrous to try and control your environment. You can’t, right? And the cheeseburger is supposed to be a very obvious metaphor, because the character is vegetarian! So the whole thing about it is like me trying to figure out Strapping and figure out my life and kids… I gotta kid. What the fuck? I never wanted kids. And then you know all of a sudden you’ve got this whole unconditional love thing, and it’s heavy, right?”
Townsend confesses that much of his life in the past was informed by fear, and by his inability to understand what he was afraid of. That the chaos and insanity of Deconstruction mirrors and draws from Strapping Young Lad at its nihilistic height was precisely the therapeutical approach he believes he needed.
“For me artistically it was best to go to the things that were freaking me out the most, in terms of art. Which is Strapping Young Lad and my connection to that,” he says. “Just put my head straight into it and just pound through it and just figure out what I was afraid of. And I think what I was afraid of, ultimately, was being seen as vulnerable. But having recognised that, I realise there’s actually a strength in that. In allowing yourself to be seen without a mask… without cursing people from the shadows… just standing out there and saying, ‘Well, this is me, man. Whether or not you like it, here’s me. And I fuckin’ like flute music, so here’s Ghost!'”
Ghost is the perfect antithesis to Deconstruction. Where one is something like an immense juggernaut veering and smashing in an unstoppable and uncontrollable career of destruction, the other is the serene, tranquility of peace. The stark contrast of the albums is itself an assertion of the total control Townsend had over his own creative processes this time.
“I’ve tried to be very conscious of the fact that during the madness, there was a part of me that was fully in control,” he says. “And there are moments on the records where we all rip off Meshuggah, or ‘We’re not finished yet!’ or all these little things that are interjected into the lyrics that I’m trying to put across the impression that, through all the complications, there’s no lack of control. Whereas in the past, when I was all high and drunk and terrified and paranoid, there was zero control. And there’s a romantic element to that too. To not being in control of yourself that contributed to those records, that ultimately is a self-destructive mindset. Making Deconstruction I was very aware and very conscious during the recording itself of the need to take it to these places, specifically to these places that scare you the most, and then own it. And then at the end of it make a decision as to whether you want that for your life.”
Each album of the four-volume cycle features a different cast of singers and musicians drawn from various bands and genres across the metal world. While it wasn’t completely unheard of on his works of the past, there seems to have been a conscious desire to incorporate more female voices on this set of albums.Townsend says he was always been attracted to female vocals and was looking for someone to provide that touch on Addicted. When the singer from Ki couldn’t do it, serendipity intervened to deliver him the chance to work with Agua de Annique’s Anneke van Giersbergen.
“At first I was going to use Ché [Aimee Dorval], who sang on Ki [he pronounces it “key”]. But she was unavailable and I was kind of in a position where I was trying to find someone,” he explains. “And out of the blue, Anneke sent me an email with her singing one of my songs, “Hyperdrive”, live. I remember thinking that this is pretty much the perfect scenario. I’ve been a fan of her works for years, right. So I sent her a mail and said, ‘Thank you for sending that, would you like come to Vancouver and record a record with me?’ And she did. And our relationship since then has turned into a live performance thing as well, and it continues to evolve. Not only am I incredibly humbled that she would be part of it, but I’m excited because I’m a huge fan of her work both with The Gathering and since.”
Deconstruction, he discovered, needed far more voices than what he could provide on his own. So, thinking of some of the bands and artists he’d worked or toured worked with previously, he was able to enlist a formidable army of vocal talent for Deconstruction that includes Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, Ihsahn from Emperor, The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato, Paul Masvidal of Cynic, Joe Duplantier from Gojira, former After Forever singer Floor Jansen and Tommy Rogers from Between the Buried and Me. He even roped in Meshuggah’s Frederik Thordendal to perform on the title track.
“There’s only a handful of metal bands that I really like, right. Most of them are bands that I’ve known for years or toured with, so I wrote a lot of the music thinking, well, this part’s got a death metal vocal and this part’s got a black metal vocal and this part’s got a soprano and this part’s got a sort of metalcore-sounding thing,” he says. “And when I came time to record it I did them myself and I realised that it lacks that sort of depth that comes from different textures of different vocalists. I contacted them and for the most part the people were very excited to do it and I’m very honoured to have them.”
We talk a little about what would have been his next Australia visit, with Soundwave Revolution (it was cancelled five days after this interview), and whether he is thrilled by the prospect of being on the same bill as one of his childhood heroes, Van Halen.
“I’m more interested in seeing Gojira,” he says, laughing. “I mean, Van Halen, yeah, don’t get me wrong… awesome. But I saw Van Halen’s reunion tour, back when it was just starting out, and Eddie was waaaaasted, man. Apparently they’re much better now, but I remember just watching it and going, ‘…I’m not into this anymore.’ The chances of me running into Eddie Van Halen and him saying, ‘I hear you don’t like what we’re doing anymore,’ are pretty slim, but I’d rather go see Gojira”.
Now of course he needn’t worry about that, but even with two weeks’ worth of dates scrubbed, he hardly has time to be idle. He may be more at peace with himself and the world, but he isn’t ready to stop working. The next project is a six-disc special edition box-set package of The Devin Townsend Project’s albums, complete with two live DVDs.
“And it’s an 80-page book and it’s basically a testament to my inability to get laid,” he says with a wry laugh.
Beyond that, he hasn’t yet thought too intently but the release the DTP albums have afforded him have definitely reinvigorated the man. After a slow pause, he reveals his plans.
“Clean my garage, make a chair, go for a bike ride… And make shitloads of more weird music!”