Devin Townsend – Presiding Over the Clusterf**k
Sunday, 15th September 2013 by David E. Gehlke
Impossible not to learn something from talking to Devin Townsend. The prolific Canuck seems to have a thought, anecdote, or lesson on just about anything, primarily his career, which has been cast in the spotlight ever since he joined Steve Vai’s solo band in 1992. With his solo career at its highest (maybe higher than Strapping Young Lad), Townsend is still finding time for perspective, whether it’s about Strapping, or the increasing demands that come with the territory of being such a ubiquitous solo artist. So as smart as Townsend is, if it’s not from the heart, it’s not happening.
The point of discussion today is Townsend’s The Retinal Circus DVD, a career-spanning live show shot in London last year, including a full theatrical performance, various guests, and virtually every nook and cranny of his career addressed. And as Townsend would go on to tell DR, such “underfunded, over-ambitious” projects tend to have initial roadblocks, but there’s no keeping Devin down. Once some phone issues were straightened, we got down to business with the ever-chatty (and funny) Townsend…
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve had so many stages or chapters in your career. Does The Retinal Circus close yet another? What does it signify for you?
Devin Townsend: It signifies several things. It signifies…I get bored easily, but I also tend to mine the veins of the things I work on so much and extensively, so by the time it’s completed, there’s no fuel left in them. The last 20 years of my career have been so varied in terms of not only the styles of music I create, but my own connection to the industry, process, etc. So The Retinal Circus also signifies a way for me to combine everything into one place, in the aesthetic of a circus. And hopefully because I am more visible now than I ever have been, people who are intrigued or interested in what I do, will check out this Retinal Circus project and go “Okay, this is what he’s about.” This is not about one genre – that’s why it’s confused some people. It’s about some of the creative freedoms that I have been willing to take that lead me in these different directions, and is ultimately about the same vibe, which is what Retinal concludes.
One other thing: I would also say, The Retinal Circus is a way for me to confront that real, uber, awkward and nerdy part of me that I’ve often been accused, but have tried to hide in a lot of cases, but doing The Retinal Circus is a way for me to frame it. If anybody has any critiques about me being awkward and nerdy, it’s like, “No shit, here it is.”
Dead Rhetoric: I saw a quote from you in regard to The Retinal Circus: “It’s a clusterfuck on stage.” Can you elaborate?
Townsend: I probably just like swearing – it makes me feel good [laughs]. In my head, everything I do that has a concept, which is 80%, appears a lot more streamlined in my mind’s eye than when we try to articulate it on stage when we have no money and no time. So, Retinal Circus is yet another example of me being overambitious and underfunded, as someone close to me commented on the state of my career. Once you’ve spent some time with the show – if you choose to do so, or you turn it off, it makes a great deal of sense. Ultimately, by the end of the end of the show, it has a point that it makes, that the clusterfuck nature is essential. It has to be there.
But really at first look, I had a bunch of friends – I spent a lot of time on the video and the audio – I brought the DVD on the tour bus I was on at the time and I played for a band we were out with at the time and a bunch of guys that were involved with it, I put it on and cranked it up, and looked around the front lounge and everybody’s face was like, “What the fuck is this?” I remember thinking at that point, “If you’re not deeply invested in the creative elements of it and why it is the way it is, I can totally see why people would view it as chaos.” When I had described it as being a clusterfuck on stage, it was more of me buffering people that until you do choose get that deep into it, it’s pretty over the top.
Dead Rhetoric: In terms of preparation for it, you covered every base in your catalog from your early solo stuff, to Strapping, to some of the newer material you released. How daunting was it to pull it all together and get it ready?
Townsend: Everything is daunting, if you look at what the goal [is], rather than the steps. I’m so used to the projects I undertake being too much, or impossible to really do properly. I’m so used to that being a common thread in everything that I do, but with Retinal, it was, “Okay, take a deep breath and what’s the first step?” You know from in the past from doing the By a Thread or any number of over-ambitious projects, that it’s too easy to get caught up in the daunting elements of it, so I started with a setlist, then a story, then we refined it. I went through the people in my world that I know and happen to be reliable and delegated certain problems and left it up to them.
By the end of it, we were all over-worked and over-taxed in terms of the responsibilities we had, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was a success in that it wasn’t a complete disaster. I think that going back to your first question, which may be the over-arching point of this interview for me at least, is what is Retinal about? It’s about pulling things off when everyone tells you that you can’t. It’s about finishing things that when you start, chances of failure are astronomical that unless you are prepared to fail, it’s going to fail. The daunting elements of Retinal are no different than the daunting elements of Ziltoid right now, it’s all daunting, but I can’t let that slow me down.
Dead Rhetoric: What made the U.K. the right place to shoot this? Was it the right location, fan support, and setup?
Townsend: There’s a strategy behind everything we’re doing now – me, the label, the management – we all have different motivation. The management is trying to make it work, the label is trying to make money, and I make puppets, essentially [laughs]. Part of that strategy, for management and the label is that you have to make it look impressive. You have to do in the place where you can be assured 5,000 people are going to show up. If we did it in Alberta, or Des Moines, Iowa, we’d have 200 people.
For the sake of the fact that I have been doing this for a long time, but over the last five years, things have become more visible, I think it’s really important for the sake of perception, for people to see these ideas demonstrated in a way that gives people the idea, “If he did ever make money, and he did have backing, and he could play in front of 20,000 people, what could they do then?” To do it in a place where we do have a solid fanbase makes sense for a lot of reasons, primarily it’s to make the show look like an advertisement for ideas that I have in the future.
Dead Rhetoric: I don’t have full list of the guests involved, but I know Steve Vai took part in the show. Are you still in touch with him?
Townsend: Yeah, I send him demos and pictures of Ziltoid doing stupid shit. I think people who are single-minded in purpose like myself and Vai and any number of actual friends of mine who have these certain proclivities, tend to attract each other. We have this camaraderie. A lot of the things that define the personality types that he and I and a lot of other people have is that maintaining and making friendships is not only a type of effort that is unusual, I just don’t have the patience for it most of the time. My friends are mostly people I’ve known for my entire life. The thing that is new is relationships that are slowly coming together, so my point is that I’m still working on my relationship with Steve and trying to find ways to communicate ourselves in adult and realistic ways. The reality of it is that we’ve matured into each other, and we do have friendships. It’s a peculiar one, but it is one. I’ve find that he’s opened up to me in ways that he’s never expected and I find that I’ve opened up to him in ways that I didn’t foresee myself doing. Having him a part of The Retinal Circus is a part of that, I think.