The guitarguitar Interview: Devin Townsend

Published on 10 May 2019

We at guitarguitar are big fans of Devin Townsend. Ever since first coming into contact with him at an in-store clinic at our Glasgow store in 2011, we’ve been awed and amazed by his musical output. It’s normal for adjectives like ‘Epic’ and ‘enormous’ to be over-used, especially by excited writers keen to lay on the hyperbole, but in Devin’s case these terms seem somehow diminishing. Devin Townsend is an artist like no other and his music, which is by turns gentler than Enya and more ferocious than Cannibal Corpse, has inspired fierce dedication from an ever-increasing army of diehard fans. Indeed, as I note as the beginning of my chat with him, his career is on an ever-upward trajectory, with his latest album, Empath, hitting the Top of many international Rock charts and also earning several 10/10 reviews with influential sites and blogs.

We’ve been lucky enough to encounter Devin a few times over the years, (see our video here as I relax on Dev’s tour bus outside the Glasgow Barrowlands) and each time he has been a very easy, friendly and polite man to talk to. Full of humour and humbleness, and insightful thoughts, Devin is a real pleasure to talk to.

On this particular occasion, I headed through to Edinburgh on a Sunny Monday to catch up with Dev before his sold-out acoustic performance at the Jam House. Although he has done these types of gigs before, he is perhaps better known for the intense, grandiose metallic music that he has written and recorded even since being ‘discovered’ by Steve Vai back when he was 19. Devin is a vastly underrated guitarist, who mainly plays in Open C tuning (C-G-C-G-C-E) and has had endorsement deals with guitar makers like ESP in the past.

This night, however, was about connecting with a small audience in an intimate venue. Paper and pens had even been left out at the merch table for the audience to write questions for Devin on. These, I would later find out, were ALL answered by him in two hilarious and disarmingly honest Q&A sessions during the evening.

 Tables were being moved and chairs placed as I made my way through the venue for my allocated 5pm interview slot. Occupying a semi-circular booth, I kept out of the way of the crew and waited for Devin to finish his stage prep. As usual, I came armed with my clipboard full of questions, but as Devin joined me and conversation commenced, the chat went elsewhere completely! Happily, Devin shared many interesting and honest perspectives, making the conversation a very rewarding experience. Had I stuck to my questions, I don’t think the finished piece would be quite as interesting a read!

I have opted to reproduce the conversation essentially verbatim, as I believe it helps to better illustrate Devin’s thoughtful, elliptical way of talking.

 

Guitarguitar: First of all, congratulations on Empath! That’s a UK number 1 in the Rock charts, as well as 10/10 reviews on Blabbermouth and other sites.

Devin: Yeah thanks, it’s crazy man! 

GG: Because it’s by no means a compromising record. 

D: No! Probably the opposite! But I mean, not to minimise that, because I’m very proud of it, but...it was the next one in line, you know what I mean? and as such, I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking of some new ideas because what typically happens is two or three projects vie for pole position as to which one’s going to capitalise on your interests, and hopefully you can sustain that to the point where you have enough material for a full record. So I had an idea last night that I think is really great but I’ve only got maybe three or four ideas for it, but my fingers are crossed that it’ll sustain itself and I’ll get maybe ten but...Empath was very similar but it was just the next in line.

GG: Okay, so with Empath...first time we spoke was way back in 2011 and that was just days before Ghost and Deconstruction came out.

D: Yeah.

GG: So, they are both quite extreme sides of what you’ve been doing for a long time.

D: Sure. 

GG: Then the second time we spoke was in the tour bus outside the Barrowlands for the Transcendence tour.

D: Yeah, I remember!

GG: And now with Empath, and it feels like your career is on a really upwards trajectory, is that how it seems for you?

D: I think so, actually. Yeah, I think it is and I think that’s the reason I was nervous whilst making Empath, because I recognised that I was on that trajectory and I’ve got a lot more to lose now than when I was twenty two now, right?

GG: Haha, that’s true.

D: But it was enough of a compulsion to go in this direction, that I was prepared to lose that trajectory.

GG: Okay. 

D: You know? But that’s frightening when you have kids and family and everything, right? Um, but it certainly seems like it’s going in that direction, but I’ve said this before on a number of occasions, there’s a Woody Allen quote that I always go back to that goes “If you keep showing up, eventually they’ll have a seat for you”.

GG: Haha, that’s good!

D: Haha, you know? I mean, I’ve been doing this for...I’ve run the gamut of being the youngest kid in the crew and being the oldest guy on the bus, right?

GG: Yeah, even when we first met, I said to you: “People are really starting to get this stuff” and you were like “Yeah, but after twenty years?” Haha!

D: Haha, yeah, well slow and steady, right?

GG: I hope so! I hope Woody Allen’s quote works for me because I’m 37 and I’m still showing up, so eventually I’ll get my moment, haha!

D: Yeah! I think, um, 37 was probably, for me, that was the first Ziltoid record. 

GG: Right.

D: And at that point, things were...

GG: New baby, wasn’t it?

D: Yeah

GG: Actually, I was thinking about Ziltoid earlier. This is totally off the topic but I read your book (Only Half There, Devin’s autobiography) and in that you said that Ziltoid was made quietly at night with headphones.

D: That’s correct, yeah.

GG: Dude, see programming? Like drum programming, blast beats, stuff that has a bit of a groove...sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world!

D: Yeah and it’s...the actual beats I enjoy programming, it’s just the cymbals that are such a pain in the ass, right?

GG: Yup.

D: Because you can get these intricate patterns going, referencing the riffs in interesting ways, and then over the top it’s just TAA TAAA TAAA so I mean...

GG: It’s like bludgeoning it...

D: Yeah, I didn’t enjoy programming drums particularly much but that was what was in line at that point as well and that was an option that I was very interested in: that was just like, not having to rely on anybody for it. In a certain way, that’s what this is too, these acoustics shows. It’s similar to that, where I don’t, y’know...I’m out here on my own, I’ve got the day to myself, I don’t have to micro-manage other people’s emotional needs and I’m able to travel a little nicer than I’ve been able to in the past because the overheads are so little. Like we don’t have any rider, we don’t have any catering, it’s like nothing, right?

GG: Yeah, sounds good.

D: And, uh, that’s what I need right now, I needed to sort of enjoy this again, I’m not just gonna run in circles all day just making sure other people are okay.

GG: Totally. So, tonight’s show. Obviously, you’ve got so many songs, and some are gonna work better on acoustic guitar than others. Stuff like ‘Sumeria’ (ultra-heavy song from Deconstruction), you’re not gonna do that on acoustic guitar, right?

D: No, nor would I want to! I think it’s like, I remember years ago trying to transfer some of the heavy stuff on to acoustic and it just sounds shit.

GG: Yeah, it’s inappropriate, isn’t it?

D: I agree (nods). But, um, I have some surprising stuff that does work. I think.

GG: Okay!

D: You know? So, I think the show is really cool, this whole acoustic thing.

GG: Is it going to be career-spanning?

D: Yeah! I think it’s really good man!

GG: Brilliant! Cannot wait! So, with Empath...I was thinking about the actual term ‘Empath’, because it means like...people can empathize, but an ‘empath’ is somebody who not only understands someone else’s pain but actually feels the pain themselves. Is that something you have personal experience of?

D: Mmm-hmm, maybe not to the extent that some people have, but I’m so reactionary creatively, like however the audience is, that’s how I’m going to react, right? However, if a friend of mine is sad, I’m going to feel that, or if someone’s in a shitty mood, I’m going to feel this, right? And...I think the process of me making this record went hand in hand with me coming to terms with not only that, but how much it has affected my world negatively, so learning to impose certain parameters on my interactions with people, with my professional interactions, and what I agree to or don’t agree to has been something that has been, first and foremost over the past couple of years and has resulted in this to a certain extent.

 And, um, I realise that towards the end of DTP (Devin Townsend Project, Devin’s previous backing band) in my life, I was just running on fumes because...I spent so much time interacting with the audience, which I mean is really important but at the same time, if you think about it, I mean it never really ends, like I remember we played a show in an arena in Chile and I thought ‘people wanna shake hands’ so I went down and began shaking hands but dude, I could’ve been there for like...you know what I mean?

GG: Yeah, you can never shake enough hands in that situation.

D: Yeah, and I think on this run in particular...I’ve experimented with a couple of things, like I’ve asked to do no VIPs and I’ve asked to do no, like...I didn’t wanna stay after the show necessarily, and it’s not, I hope it not because, um, I’m trying to step away from that entirely, but I also recognise that it was really preventing me from wanting to continue doing it. Just that transfer of energy. 

GG: That’s exactly what I was gonna ask you about: this whole energy kind of, currency almost, and the whole thing with it (the record) being called Empath, I was wondering if there was a situation where...I’d hesitate to use the term ‘energy vampire’ but with certain people who have a sort of parasitic sort of...

D: Yeah. 

GG: So that was your method of coping with it? Like, in the words of Maynard James Keenan, ‘Calculate what you will and will not tolerate’, right?

D: That’s it, and well, I think ‘vampiric’ maybe implies a type of, um, malevolence that I think a lot of times is not actually there. I think that this type of energy transfer can be unhealthy for artists in general, but I think that in people have an emotional investment in what an artist does, they have like a need to express that which...I mean, I think that some artists get off on it, like ‘tell me it’s great, tell me I’m great’, or if someone has something negative to say, it’s ‘you’re wrong, go fuck yourself’ and that sort of thing. But you know, for me the truth is certainly in the middle somewhere...

GG: Do you find it can go either way?

D: Well, I mean, I think I’m pretty good at ignoring the criticisms that seem to be there just to be spiteful.

GG: Yeah.

D: And I think I’m pretty good at being present with people when they have something really intense to tell ya, in which the music has played a role in, y’know, like a death or something, right? But at the same time, uh, rather than vampiric, it’s just intense.

GG: Yeah.

D: And there’s only a certain amount of...

GG: It has a cost.

D: It has a cost (nods). And I didn’t recognise that until recently. You know, like...meet n greets, for example, where it’s person after person, it’s intense...

GG: All these people who love your music and they all want to share their relationship of it with you.

D: This is it, and it’s like all in...20 seconds or something (laughs) and it’s like Gaaah! Yaaah! and it’s like ‘holy fuuuck’ and again, I think it’d be easier if I didn’t care!

GG: If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t make the type of music that would inspire such feelings in the audience in the first place, though.

D: So it’s like a big learning curve that I’m having to explore just now, because I just found that, um, I was really tempted over the last couple of years, thinking ‘I don’t know if I actually want to do this anymore’.

GG: Wow. 

D: And it’s not the musical side of it, it’s the participation with that level of energy and what I recognise is that of course I wanna do it but I need to...I need to say no sometimes.

GG: Re-asses certain bits...

D: That’s what this has been.

GG: It’s kind of like: some artists are great musicians, but they don’t want to be on Instagram every day and that puts them off completely because they feel that it’s got nothing to do with their job. But it does! Do you ever feel like that?

D: But it is, yeah, it is! Yeah, my Instagram and Twitter is a little easier for me. I can do a little bit of advertisements if there’s some shit that needs advertised, right? but otherwise I just have a laugh with that, and that allows...I think you get a sense pretty quick about who these people are.

GG: Oh yeah, definitely!

D: And I think that’s actually healthy, ah, you know? Like if someone is, y’know, a terrible person (laughs), you know what I mean? I think it’s gonna come out pretty quick!

GG: Haha, yeah, people reveal their personalities in really obvious ways on these platforms.

D: This is it, yeah. And so, I think that I enjoy those sorts of outlets because there are so creative in a way, you know? And I enjoy that but, I mean I’m kind of on a bridge between two continents right now and, uh, it will probably go on for another little while but I’ve spent the last year or so really just trying to come to terms with some things that, up to this point, I haven’t allowed myself to entertain.

GG: Okay.

D: You, like, you think: of course you have to do certain things, of course, but then after a while that’s taking from you in a way that’s preventing you from wanting to continue.

GG: Right: there’s a bigger picture involved.

D: This is it, and I mean I think some people become, uh, you know, it’s like anything: if you don’t relate to somebody’s proclivities, or mental illness even, it’s easy to disregard it and be like ‘well actually, that’s not a tangible thing’ and I think that in the past I’ve sort of fallen, or been guilty of saying well, I don’t want to appear as if I am, y’know, any way that...I don’t want to appear too sensitive, I don’t want to appear too this, that or the other thing, but then you get to the point, or at least I certainly got to the point, where age was a contributing factor where I was like: ‘you know, you gotta just make peace with what you are. You gotta recognise what you are and then, when you realise that, you’ve got to make concessions for what you are that may not be understood by everybody, and I think that as long as you don’t do it flippantly, like you don’t go down this rabbit hole of ‘Oh, I have this idea’, it’s more like you say to yourself: Ok, after the soundcheck, I’m gonna go and eat and think.

 So I do exactly that today, and then I’m walking around and then I saw this restaurant and as soon as I walked in I saw maybe...ten people, and they turned, and they had the Empath shirts, and as opposed to doing what I think I should have done, which was going ‘Oh hey, how’s it going, thanks for coming!’, I just panicked! I fucking bolted! (laughs) Because I was so in my own head that...you don’t expect to see people that know you! It’s like I separate myself so much from my work, that it never occurs to me that this (this situation) exists! So I see them on Twitter and they were all ‘sorry we scared you away’ and I’m saying ‘I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude man, I just didn’t expect to see...people!

GG: Haha, that’s funny!

D: And I just wanted to eat! And I just panicked, dude. (laughs)

GG: Yeah like (adopts grumpy voice) ’thanks for ruining my day’.

D: Haha, well that’s how I felt too! (laughs) I was like: there are these people, they all got together and they all wanted to come to the show and as soon as I walk in the restaurant, they’re all waving and I’m just going ‘Holy fuck!’ Aaagh, haha! You know?

GG: That’s like a proper ‘League of Gentlemen’ moment! Just turn around, this didn’t happen, off you go...

D: Yeah, haha! League of Gentlemen moment! Exactly. Yeah but I mean, it’s like, you know, I think the changes that I’m making on a personal front for me are not...it doesn’t take a month and a half to do it, it takes decades.

GG: Yes. Yeah.

D: So, that was the process of it.

GG: Right, that’s kind of what this record is though, it’s documenting the process and it’s all ‘you’.

D: Yes, very much. That’s what all of them are and this one, potentially more than a lot of other ones recently at least, has been rooted in documenting something that I consciously made the decision to investigate prior. A lot of times I just kind of go with it and then what comes out, comes out but with this one it was like ‘you know what: you’re disconnected from yourself’. You’re disconnected, whether or not it’s a defence mechanism or something. I felt like I was able to intellectualise my process and my emotions and my fears and hang-ups in a way that almost was like a convenient way for me to just not participate.

GG: Mmm-hmm.

D: Like I could say ‘where does my fear come from?’ and I could say ‘well, the genesis of it was with my parents and then there was this particular event, and then this other particular event and this, you know, instilled a sense of unease, and I then manifested it as some sort of...whatever...

GG: Some type of behaviour?

D: Yeah, this is it, and then I really started getting into patterns of like protecting myself by intellectualising those things as opposed to just being them, and anticipating them legitimately but, you know, you gotta be careful sometimes of what you ask for! I managed to sort of...blow myself open with this process and now it’s more like the process of how do you...uh...

GG: Put yourself together again?

D: Well yeah, in a sense, although I don’t think I ‘shattered’ my trip, I just...opened it.

GG: Got you.

D: And um, it’s more about incorporating it in a way that’s functional as opposed to something that’s just neurotic, right? But again, it’s like, the process of that trajectory is such that I had to figure it out while working, and so sometimes it’s easy to appear fragile, or like depressed, or what have you, when in actual fact... things are good! (laughs)

GG: That’s a good place to be! One of the things I get from listening to Empath is, well, it’s a dense record! I’m usually a good album behind you as a fan...

D: I get it, yeah.

GG: Like I’m loving (previous album) Transcendence right now, and in a year or so, this new one will make a whole lot more sense to me!

D: Yeah, I totally understand.

GG: But, from my first few listens, it’s coming across as quite an optimistic record! Like, you’ve got...steel drums and some animal sounds and some lovely waves...

D: Heh heh!

GG: And, I was chatting about the record on the way up on the train, and the person I was with mentioned it as being like a sort of ‘divinity in nature’...and not only that, the sound of the record is quite dynamic, and shifts tone a lot: the madness, the heaviness and then the gentle and beautiful. It’s like this record is taking all your previous statements and offering them up all combined together in a new way...

D: And consciously so! I think people have said, like it’s easy make this big blanket statement, like ‘it’s this big up-and-down’, and I’ve said, well: It’s a craaazy record. But, for me, the reason why it needed to be dynamically up-and-down was, I guess, twofold. One...threefold!

One; I needed to, um, review my past and then make assessments as to what my relationship with each one of those things is at this mid-life sort of phase.

 Two: life in general is chaotic, and I think one thing that I started becoming aware of over the course of the past three records at least, was a conscious decision to eliminate any music or thoughts that were negative, because I assumed that it was an aberration as opposed to the pond reflecting on what my creative trip should be. On reflection of what my creative trip would be, I realised that my lack of desire to investigate those parts of my personality would lead me to just fear them. So, I consciously allowed things to get ugly, again, at certain parts...and angry at certain parts...

GG: Like lifting up the rocks to see what’s underneath?

D: That’s it, but also, the trajectory of the record being so ‘what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck’ is um, the most honest reflection that my output is, of what life really is. Because one thing to the exclusion of all others is, like...for example, Strapping (Strapping Young Lad, Devin’s previous band, famous for being extremely aggressive sounding) was always brutal, and the result of that is: it is what it is. That very...linear kind of thing. But this (Empath) is like; because you don’t know where it’s gonna go, the emotional upheaval of it is jarring, but to me that seems a lot more like life.

GG: Yeah, exactly. Exactly!

D: And so the concept of the record ultimately, I mean there is a metaphor of course, but I mean, the concept of the record is that, um, because the amount of people that are sort of struggling with depression or mental illness or any of these suicidal thoughts or what have you, I think what really does a disservice to the type of, um, healing that needs to go into that type of psychology, is to say that ‘that doesn’t exist’. And so, the craziness of the record was important because the last couple of minutes of it, the ‘Here Comes The Sun’ part, the idea is like, it is fucking brutal, and crazy, it is...that’s what life is, but the thing that I think helps me to persevere is the recognition that other people have to deal with the same shit, so the point of the records is...

GG: We’re all in it together?

D: (taps table and nods) So that’s why I need it to be (points to album artwork that says ‘Love and be Loved’) That’s it. That’s it.

GG: That’s brilliant. It’s so important.

D: Yeah man, and that’s a really hard thing to do!

With this, Devin’s Tour Manager approached to indicate that our time was up. Devin returned to the stage to tweak his Ableton Push and digital guitar FX, and I headed back out onto Edinburgh’s Queen Street.

The show that evening did not disappoint! The set list was indeed varied, featuring material from across his entire career. His guitar playing, always exemplary, sparkled on his two cutaway Dreadnought guitars, custom made for him in Vancouver. His vocals were the star of the show though: people who have watched various ‘Singing Teacher Reacts’ videos on Youtube will be well aware of his reputation amongst ‘learned’ professionals, and, stripped of his usual backing band, his vocals sounded positively Olympian. He even managed to perform an opera-worthy rendition of Les Misérables’ ‘Bring Him Home’, an unexpected moment throughout a quite incredible evening. During a Q&A moment, Devin thrilled long-time fans by singing a verse from his early days as Steve Vai’s lead singer! For one man and a guitar, the show was colourful, energetic and exciting, not to mention intimate.

Artists of such ability and power are rare indeed; those with a willingness to share so much with their audience are rarer still. Devin is one such artist and is more than worth your undivided time and attention. Empath is one of the boldest and most satisfying releases of the year: if you want to know what is currently at the cutting edge of modern Rock music, this is where to begin.

 

I would like to thank Devin for his time and for his candour. I’d also like to thank Paul Collis and Freddy Palmer for all of their help and invaluable assistance.

Devin is touring with a full band later this year: check out the dates, and everything else Dev-related, at his website here.

 

Interview by Ray McClelland