You won't find a more honest artist in the universe of heavy metal than Devin Townsend.
Whether he's making neck-breaking speed metal, enlightening psych rock, sparse new age soundscapes or puppet-driven prog, everything Devin does is steeped in his inherent awkwardness, his regrets and his revulsion of his lingering self-centeredness.
With over 20 studio albums under his belt and many more projects in various states of completion at any given time, it seems like music pours out of Devin like a hose dousing a burning house.
Devin's latest album, Empath, is his most ambitious to date. It's also the most Devin Townsend-y album he's ever done. With a cacophony of monstrous riffs, inspiring choruses and comical musical twists, Empath is a dense record, employing a
little bit a lot of everything Devin has explored musically over the past 25 years.
The singer/composer/guitarist is an open book when it comes to past struggles with his mental health. And conceptually, Empath is Devin's latest stab at being OK. It's an affirmation of where he is today, a validation of what he's been through and a release valve for his creative mania.
As human beings go, Devin Townsend is awfully comfortable with who he is as both an artist and as a person. Getting to that point, he explains to Q104.3 New York's QN'A, is part of what allowed him to connect a while back with his old nemesis and fellow-Canadian rocker Chad Kroeger of Nickelback.
Yes, Devin used to hate Nickelback like everyone else — maybe more so, having come up in basically the same scene as the reviled Canadian hitmakers. Regardless of the shockwaves the revelation sent through the metal-verse, Devin says pushing back against the anti-Nickelback "mob mentality" was an important step forward in his maturity, and it helped him artistically.
"Once I got to know [Chad] and got to see his process, I think the most enlightening epiphany of the whole thing is like, ‘No, it’s exactly the same process [as mine],'" Devin tells QN'A. "Him being true to himself results in something that is a reflection of who he is."
Letting go of those preconceptions, allowed Devin and Kroeger to become friends, which in turn led Devin to the realize that authenticity comes in many forms. In Kroeger's case, his authenticity made him a ton of money and caused people to widely mock him. In Devin's case, his authenticity made him a modest living, but offered creative freedom and the respect of an entire genre.
Empath is meant to express that dichotomy, as well as life's other chaos and contradictions.
"I think your emotional health depends on your ability to surf the ups and downs," Devin explains. "To have music act as an analogy for that kind of dynamic of life, I think, lends credence to the emotional components."
Read the our QN'A with Devin below.
Your tour dates this year are billed as 'acoustic' shows; how acoustic is the show, really? I know you have a new signature acoustic with Prestige Guitars, but you've also been working on a lot of other guitar technology.
Oh, it’ll never be just guitar and voice. And I think the reason why is because compositionally I use so much echo as part of my creative process. More so than trying to prove a point with an acoustic tour, what I’m trying to do is express the genesis of the material. And it begins with this, which is like an acoustic guitar with echo. I’m using some sound effects too because to my ears it fills in the blanks in a way that is more interesting. I guess this is as close to a pure acoustic show as I’m ever going to get (Laughs).
When you revealed that you were friends with Chad Kroeger, a lot of people freaked out. But you were very patient. Did you think that was going to be such a big deal? Are you tired of talking about it?
(Laughs) Well, it hasn’t actually been that big of a thing for me. I get asked about it. I think that on the scale of things that people focus on, it’s more of a curiosity rather than setting the world on fire.
I think that my relationship to people is foremost in terms of my relationship to their music. And as a result of the help that I maybe inadvertently received from Chad, I like the band much more now.
I think it was a very important step for me to recognized that what I had maybe interpreted as being disingenuous was maybe more down to … I don’t know if jealousy is it … but maybe I just was so far up my own ass in terms of my own process that I assumed that if people were to write music that was of a commercial nature, than clearly they would be doing it for disingenuous reasons.
Once I got to know [Chad] and got to see his process, I think the most enlightening epiphany of the whole thing is like, ‘No, it’s exactly the same process.’ Him being true to himself results in something that is a reflection of who he is.
As obvious of a statement that that may be in hindsight, it was a big deal to me at the time. So I respect him more now.
I may be misconstruing this, but it seems like you've openly wondered in the past whether you'll eventually abandon metal, as a means of expressing yourself. I'm always relieved to hear you employ some of those sounds, heavy guitars and gigantic drums. What's your relationship to metal at this point? Why do you keep returning to some of those sounds?
I think there’s a couple things that I would say about that. First off, there’s a lot of bands that you and I are aware of that distance themselves from heavy music the older they get.
There’s some bands that I know that would love it if people would never mention the fact that they did metal, as if it were the equivalent of them trying to become actors after doing pornography. But for me it’s really not about that.
Metal is a dynamic, in terms of composition for me in the same way that I would appreciate the kick drum sound in active rock or a very sticky chorus in a Britney Spears song or an avant-garde passage in [an Igor] Stravinsky piece that implies a certain level of chaos. It’s the same sort of thing. As a result of that, I’ve not consciously tried to distance myself from it in a way that tried to claim that I’ve changed so much that this is no longer part of my aesthetic.
I think the second part of this statement for me is that I had assumed up to a certain point that the fact that I was making music that was aggressive was actually and aberration, emotionally, in me; [I thought] that any healthy person wouldn’t have the desire to make those sounds.
I think that started to come into my mind after we had kids. Lots of changes started happening. Now I’ve returned to utilizing it as a certain texture because I’ve recognized over the past year that, not only is it not an aberration, but if I don’t deal with it or make some sort of assessment on my relationship with that part of my creative being, I’m only going to fear it. Any fears like that creatively means that you’re stuck there.
Empath, even with the title, was more of the process of digging into the emotional components of who I was and try and understand what my relationship with that is now.
One of the things that blows me away about Empath is that there are these huge dynamic shifts, but nothing is shocking to the listener be it in terms of volume or in terms of the amount of things in the arrangement.
It isn't [meant to be shocking].
How do you manage all those elements when you're mixing? It seems like it would be impossible to get to this end result without you, the composer, being able to mix as well.
The first thing I would say is that, you know, I’ve done a bunch of interviews recently where they say, ‘Oh, it’s like a genre mash-up.’ And I can understand that, but one thing that I’m quick to point out is that it’s not meant to be provocative.
I think a lot of bands that do that genre mashup thing are thinking consciously, ‘What can we do next that would be bizarre or shocking musically?’ I’ve got zero desire to do that.
My reason for having things move in that way is because, A: I think that’s what life does. I think your emotional health depends on your ability to surf the ups and downs. To have music act as an analogy for that kind of dynamic of life, I think, lends credence to the emotional components. And 2: I just get bored. I’ll be working on something, and I’ll think this is one thing at the exclusion of others and ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if…,’ as opposed to ‘Wouldn’t it be provocative if…’
And then the mix for this …um, I mean, it’s a nightmare, dude. It was a nightmare.
Given your admitted tendency to get bored, plus all the other goals you have musically, why are you planning on spending the next three years doing touring for Empath?
Actually, it’s convenient to me to bring this out over a three-year period because it doesn’t mean I won’t be doing those other things. It just means that while I’m doing them, I’m not forced to relentlessly work on something that’s already finished i.e. Empath, to the point where I resent it.
So if I can take a couple of months and work on [symphonic project] The Moth or work on this rock thing I’m doing or this mellow thing I’m doing, and then go back out on tour, that’s great.
I’m in a very fortunate position as a creative at this point that not a lot of others, at least in my peer group are in. And that is that I can kind of call my own shots at this point.
The three-year plan is actually much more of a strategy than it is a liability at this point.
Is there anything you want to add?
I just flail and then by the end I’m just hoping that I remove all the things about the vision that irritate me in hopes that it’s even in the general vicinity of the ballpark.
I think I’m very fortunate to have made a bunch of mistakes in my career. Without those mistakes I don’t know that I would have been willing to take such leaps of faith recently. I would thank anybody who’s been patient enough to stick with me through this.
In closing, I would just say that I love what I do. And it’s a real honor to be able to continue to do it. Thank you very much.
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