Devin Townsend – Reflection and GratitudeSunday, 18th October 2020
The last time we spoke with Devin Townsend, it was around the time that Devin Townsend Project was calling it quits and Townsend was ready to move into greener pastures. Since then, he’s been doing a number of tours that showcase different facets of his music. His upcoming live album, Order of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1, is one of those experiments – no backing tracks and a group of talented musicians doing some improv surrounding him. It also gave us a chance to chat with him about everything from quarantine to social media, what he’s grateful for, and of course, the inside scoop about what he likes about Order of Magnitude.
Dead Rhetoric: Was it daunting to take these big songs from Empath and give them a full-bodied live experience?
Devin Townsend: [Laughs] In a word, yes. All of these things are daunting. Everything that I seem to become interested in is daunting. Maybe that’s because I’m typically interested in things that I haven’t done yet. Although that sounds romantic, like I’m trying to push ahead, I just get really bored easily. As soon as I’ve done something, I feel like I don’t have the energy to do it again because I know what the outcome is going to be. Whenever I have the opportunity to do something new, I often become compelled to go in directions that I haven’t gone before. That invariably ends up being a gong show. That’s how it rolls.
This ended up being another example of that. It was like, what can we do to screw myself up here? Ten people on stage, tiki bars, visuals, all of these costume changes, and no backing tracks. A whole band full of people who had never played metal before! It was new to them. Then to take all of this highly orchestrated material and then just say, let’s do this, was challenging. There was a few things that made it easier – Diego [Tejaida] did a really good job on the keyboards. He managed to sort of bring a lot of the aspects of the recording to the live thing without having to focus on tracks. It was a relief.
Once we were on stage, I realized that although the tracks wouldn’t be exactly like the record, which was kind of how I always pursued live performance – I like the fact that it sounds like the record. But I knew it wouldn’t be like that with these guys. Morgan [Agren] is really a jazz player and Mike [Kenneally] is super improvisational in Zappa, and Mark [Reuter] – all he does is improvise, really. At first, I didn’t know how it was going to work. I thought it might be a mess. Upon getting on stage, I realized that they were all geniuses, so even if it isn’t like the record, it’s wicked! It was one of those things that even though it was daunting, the whole thing was a joy – to a lesser or greater degree.
Dead Rhetoric: What makes this particular show stand out to you in your mind?
Townsend: The first thought that I had, was that I realized that in doing this for the last couple of decades, and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, I don’t function particularly well in a band. I like the energy that comes with having a bunch of people who are excited and new to things. When you get a bunch of musicians, that in this case, have so many different stylistic backgrounds – no one knew what to expect. I chose them, not only on their abilities but their personalities. It was a huge part of process of choosing musicians – hanging with them and seeing what they were like. Then realizing that they are all kind hearted, and they are all calm.
When we were on tour, the things that took me by surprise was how great of a vibe it was. Everybody wanted to spend time with each other. We were always with each other. Sometimes you’ll be on tour and at the end of the day, one guy is going to the bar and no one else wants to [laughs]. Here, if someone went out, we would all go together and it was a real communal and beautiful vibe. But again, if this became a band, would that continue? Probably not. It would probably break off into factions. So I kind of realized by doing this that maybe the future of my work is best suited by having temporary bands.
Dead Rhetoric: With DTP behind you, do you think that it opens the doors once more from a creative standpoint?
Townsend: Oh yeah. There’s a certain eye on the audience as well. I think that what can typically happen is that you get wound up in your own trip that you don’t recognize when you are straying a little far from what is worth listening to or worth seeing. I know that I have been writing constantly for the last six months. I’ve written tons of stuff and I like it all. But I don’t know if it all necessarily needs to be heard. It will be, eventually in some form or another, in bonus tracks or what have you, but often I realize that what interest me is not necessarily an interesting piece of music, it’s something that’s novel. It’s a sound or a technique that is alluring.
Then maybe, in a couple of years when I put out a record of that stuff, I realize it. That my audience is patient. Maybe I need to better take their trip into consideration when writing too. So there’s a ton of creative freedom now, huge amounts since being a free agent. But I also really want to make sure that I don’t go flying too far into the ether that it’s unreachable. Because the music follows my life, I often recognize that if the music becomes unreachable, it’s because I am maybe going in a direction in my own life that I need to spend some time analyzing. It’s a good indicator, you know?
Dead Rhetoric: You brought up the fan experience. One thing I think of when I go onto news sites, there are always people at this point in your career that are willing to follow you wherever you go. The gag I was thinking of was people posting things like, “I would buy an hour-long album of you making fart noises.”
Townsend: That’s my next record! You’ve heard [laughs]! I am very grateful of that attitude, but I wouldn’t want to take advantage of it. I think the reason why people would even say something like that – obviously in hyperbole. The reason they would say it, I believe, is that because any steps that I have made in my career, that maybe to the outsider might seem like I am trying to be provocative, like Casualties of Cool for instance.
When that record came out, and if you weren’t actively participating in what I do, you might thing that I was just making a country record because it was provocative and it might get people talking. But rather, when I started writing it, it was the only thing that was interesting. It was like, “Shit! How am I going to convince the label? How will I convince the audience that I’m not doing this to be a jackass? I am doing this because I’m really interested in doing this. This is where all of my creative inclinations are pointing to right now.” I think that because I spend a huge amount of effort trying to call myself out on my own bs when I’m writing. Like, okay that’s cool but your reason for writing that is because like I said earlier, it’s a technique or a sound…it’s not really where you are at. It’s a byproduct.
So the reasons that I do it is because it’s emotionally significant to me. That’s the same thing that I think would make an audience member say that they would buy a full album of my farts, because maybe if I was going to make an album full of farts I would be like, “Dude, all I want to do in life right now is make this fart album [laughs].” But yeah, there’s no burning desire to make that fart record yet [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: Outside of being perpetually working on music and shows, have you found quarantine to be a reflective time for yourself?
Townsend: Yes, although I typically go in that direction. That’s’ where my inclinations are to begin with. I think it has boiled it down and condensed it to a bit. I think that there have been a lot of observations that have come to light in this period that have been very healthy for me. One of which is that I always use to fantasize about not having to tour, so I could just write. To do exactly what I have been able to do here. But I didn’t realize until the opportunity was upon me how much of my writing process in the past has maybe been linked to not wanting to stop. If I stop, I have to think. If I think, I’m going to recognize that maybe I’m further off base than maybe I’d like to be.
So now, it’s like just write – go! I found myself going, “Man, I don’t want to write today!” For the first time ever, I’m not into writing. I’m thinking that I want to write so that I can avoid not having to face a lot of things. Like anything in life, once you are aware of that mechanism within you, if you continue doing it, you know you are full of shit. So this was an opportunity so that if I was really thinking that way, what’s behind it? In the past few years, I’ve been really interested in meditation and it’s afforded me a lot of opportunities to try and refine that a bit more. It’s been really good for me. Its checks and balances. There’s some aspects that have been really good, and others that have been [laughs], well a little messed up.
Dead Rhetoric: On your last podcast, you mentioned getting away from more social media. Is it crazy how much time we suck into these platforms?
Townsend: It is crazy. I think, an explanation for it at least partially, is that human beings are social animals. As much as we are all misanthropic or insular, not all of us but many of us, we still require other humans. In the absence of being able to see each other physically, your option is social media. You can forgive oneself for getting so deeply involved in it. But on the negative side, its how these programs are structured with an eye on what will draw us in and addict us. We are kind of like guinea pigs or lambs to the slaughter in a sense. We need interaction, but here’s this super addictive and super toxic way that we can interact, so we are like ok!
It’s been really helpful for me to find a balance, because I need to use social media for my work of course. But avoiding the feeds is key for me. Life just goes on. Whether or not politicians, or movements, or the chaos of it all is still omnipresent, I can’t do much about it anyway. It wants me to be outraged, but I have to relegate that energy to other things in my life, like kids and work and getting out of bed in the morning. All of those things require more energy now than they used to. I have a limited amount of energy and I’m taking a little bit off the top just to be pissed off about someone that I don’t know and I can’t do anything about? It’s like, I don’t know dude. It seems like a waste [laughs].
It’s hard to maintain too, because in the absence of that, what does one do? What do you do with your spare time? So I started reading, but I’m not a great reader. I love meditation too, but I can’t do that all day. My back gets sore. I like exercise too, but again, it all seems like it’s work. Trying to find hobbies at 48 years old is a mess too.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you intend to keep going with the podcasts after you finish discussing various releases in your catalog?
Townsend: Maybe. I think if the need takes hold then sure. I think I hesitate to a certain extent because when you are doing podcasts, you are just talking to yourself. You can run the risk, if you are not vigilant with what you are saying, you can absent-mindedly say something that will cause you problems down the road. Or get emotionally involved with what you are speaking about, and getting disproportionately passionate about something that maybe you shouldn’t be. I can’t see any reason why I wouldn’t, but it’s like everything else – if I want to. So that’s a solid maybe.
Dead Rhetoric: With no live music in the past few months, outside of live streams, do you feel that people are more intrigued to go out and buy a live album right now?
Townsend: I don’t know – where would you even go? I don’t even know where you buy a record right now. There’s nowhere around me that sells records. So whenever I put out an album, I spend a ton of time on the production and the artwork. I think to myself, if someone is actually going to buy a record, it’s gotta be good! Otherwise, what’s the incentive? Maybe nowadays, with COVID, there’s more of a draw towards it, but at the same time, the more casual fan will probably just watch it on YouTube.
Anything that I have done – if I put out a new live record, what pays the bills for the people that recognize that doing that helps me continue? 99.9% of the population who is vaguely interested in what I do, will search for it on YouTube. I am immensely grateful to the audience that allows me to continue. There’s really no reason for people to buy anything! Why would you buy something? There’s Spotify and YouTube. It’s great! So if people do buy it, it’s because they want you to continue. So whatever I can do to make that a good relationship, I am down with.
Dead Rhetoric: Something that you are grateful for that you once took for granted?
Townsend: That list is longer by the day. I am grateful that I have taken certain steps in my life that I was afraid to take – that allow me to have respect for myself. My internal dialog for years, was “You are an idiot. You aren’t worthy of success. You aren’t worthy of love.” That’s kind of how I subconsciously labeled myself. When I was finally able to recognize that, through the help of others too, and consciously tried to change that dialog so that it was more like, “You are not an idiot. It’s okay to be confused, it’s okay to be frightened. It’s okay to be all of these things.”
Self-love is in dire straits at this point. There’s so much self-loathing going on. I think it has to do with the idea that loving one’s self seems to be wrapped up in these ideas of ego or pride. It’s not like I’m saying that I’m the cat’s ass and everyone else can eat it. It’s just not saying that I’m an idiot or not worthy. It’s not about fostering self-love as much as it is about decreasing self-loathing. I think I’m really grateful that I took the leap to try to implement that into my life because it’s been really helpful.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel that you’ve learned in growing older within the music industry that has shaped you into a better person?
Townsend: Again, there’s a lot of things. If I was to think of the first thing, it’s that I’m very grateful for it. Just when I am able to look around and say that I can do this. I’m able to write and play and have interviews and talk to people. I think that gratitude has come from getting back up after failing, publically.
I often say, when people ask about advice for aspiring musicians, that you have to learn to fail efficiently. So much of this is trial and error. There’s no guidebook for it. That’s not just on a musical level or a production level or a personal level – but all the pitfalls with this. How fundamentally selfish this whole thing actually is, and how it plays on you. All of these things. If you can’t get back up after being humiliated, or humiliating yourself, or making a mistake – if you can’t continue and learn your lesson so that you don’t do it again, but move on. If you can’t do that, you will never be able to progress. You will be afraid to make those leaps that are essential for you in order to take the next steps.
There’s no progress without some sense of fear. In order to move from a comfortable position, you have to stick your head out, and you are going to risk losing that comfortable position. For good reasons, there’s a lot of people who aren’t interested in doing that. But public failure, and screwing up to the point where you have to admit that it was your fault – whether it’s as a leader or as a band member or a business man, getting back up from that is all hand-in-hand. I think you get stronger. I thank the career and the difficulty of the music business for giving me those lessons in a way.
Dead Rhetoric: Anything you can mention about Lightwork and future releases?
Townsend: Well, what happens when I start a record is that I vomit music for about six months. That’s what I have been doing. All of these songs are varied and different. One day I’ll wake up and write some metal, then I’ll write something super chill. Then I’ll write something progressive or orchestral. Every day I follow it where it leads. I think what I’m doing is fishing. I am trying things, to see what catches my subconscious. I will write something, and in the sea of songs that I’m stuck with at the end of the vomiting period, maybe 25 or 30 songs, there’s one that catches me. Then the record starts when I start following that avenue. Until that time, it’s just random and chaos. That’s where I am at right now. I have been writing tons. I’ve got a couple of songs that I think are worth pursuing. But do I have a direction yet? I’m about 60%. It’s starting to form.