Articles : A close discussion with Devin Townsend
Devin Townsend is one of the most fascinatingly musically diverse artists within the sphere of heavy metal today. It can only be described as a treat to be given an opportunity to discuss career highlights and gain some insight from the man whose commercial career started as the front man for Steve Vai’s band. Far from interview shy, god knows there’s plenty of copy on the ‘net quoting Townsend, I felt it was time to really dig deep and explore some of the less acknowledged aspects of his journey.
Let’s start by discussing the reason for the opportunity to chat. Townsend is bringing the Devin Townsend Project to Australia for a series of dates across capital cities in May, and he has also just participated in an online lecture (held on Monday 3rd April), sharing his expertise on How To Develop Creativity & Excel As A Successful Independent Song Writer In A Changing Industry. That presentation was one of many in a series of free music business lectures offered as a part of Rodney Holder’s (editor of www.musicbusinessfacts.com) Online Music Business Summit.
I first met Townsend in 1999. I must say it was with some trepidation I approached him at the merch table to seek an autograph and a handshake after watching him and his band blitz through the triumvirate of Ocean Machine, Infinity and Strapping Young Lad cuts. Townsend couldn’t have been more cordial that evening and I mention that he was the first ‘rock star’ I’d met. It’s with a wry chuckle that Devin receives my compliment.
“That’s good to know. But I think the idea of ‘rock star’ is a mental illness. There’s a certain personality that maybe gets into music because they want to become their interpretation of a ‘rock star’, whatever that is. Their goal is to wear sunglasses inside. Be aloof with a bunch of people.”
‘Rock star’ or otherwise, fans over the globe have become familiar with Townsend and feel a connection to him through his 25 year body of work. There must be times dealing with the public takes a toll?
“I get into these situations now, and now more than anything else, I’ve got to be really careful that I don’t open myself up all the time to everybody, because it just sucks the life force out of you.”
That comment resonates. I mention that I listened intently to James Hetfield of Metallica discuss something similar on a recent edition of the outstanding Joe Rogan Show. Hetfield no longer regularly allows photography of himself and instead offers to spend time connecting with fans as everyday people instead. I imagine this must negate at least part of the ‘rock star/ fan’ paradigm which helps Hetfield manage the intensity of those interactions?
“That’s interesting. I mean, I would have no perspective on the level of success that Hetfield has and how I would react to that, but one thing I will give him is that he’s a really inspiring guy. I saw some of that Joe Rogan episode. A lot of the interviews that he’s given over the past couple of years, he’s got this father figure in the metal scene kind of thing. He gets a lot of shit for it, too. But, unabashedly he stands up for things he believes in. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, man.”
Where Hetfield’s identity will always be associated with Metallica, Townsend’s legacy is spread over multiple monikers, bands and artists. You will have to visit his Wikipedia page to ascertain his full credited discography (I lost count after 70 listed releases…). In 2017 the focus is on Transcendence, an album that sounds as though it contains the essence of his massive catalogue of work compressed into a single release, does Townsend agree?
“Maybe to date; I think even the title implies that it’s somewhere in the process of transitioning to something else. I think with this record, in particular, there’s a real sense that I wanted to pull together all these elements of my career into one place so I could have a real good definition of it. Then maybe I can move on and try something else now, you know?”
Transcendence continues Townsend’s sterling run of strong releases. As varied and comprehensive his catalogue of work is, it is devoid of any commercial or critical failures. What’s the secret?
“Many years ago I made a conscious decision that I wanted to try and be a better version of myself. I wanted to be more at peace, stronger, mentally more capable and more confident. I don’t want to get worse as I get older. I’m trying to take all these things that I’ve learned through the years and put it into play, as opposed to just collect the experiences and keep fucking up. If I don’t put my heart and soul into the record, then, number one, no one else is going to care, but, number two, it’s almost like every step of my life the record is like an exam.”
I add that it is an exam that Townsend is passing with flying colours to a round of laughter from us both.
One band in his catalogue where the aura may burn brightest is the incendiary Strapping Young Lad. When Strapping Young Lad broke large in ’97, many fans felt the band jostled for the mantle of ‘most important band in metal’ with Pantera, after the unfortunate demise of the Max Cavalera fronted Sepultura in late ‘96. For those too young to recall, the mid 90’s was a time when metal was at its lowest commercial ebb: Slayer were releasing punk covers, Bruce Dickinson was years away from re-connecting with ‘Arry, The Metal God was busy channelling Trent Reznor and Metallica was mired in the controversy surrounding the Load album series. Given Strappings’ No Sleep ’till Bedtime is a live album recorded in Melbourne in ’97 on the City tour, I ask what the relationship between Townsend and Australian audiences has been like over the years.
“It’s been phenomenal, to be honest. I mean, I can’t recall all the epiphanies that I’ve had while being in Australia. I remember the first tour we did (’97), staying in hostels, driving between cities in a van with (Canberra psych-metal band) Alchemist. We played in Wagga… I always remember that. I always bring it up. Prior to that tour we were opening up for Testament in America, and everybody really just hated us. Then we got to Australia and the reaction was so positive, man. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t do my shit. I was so used to telling everybody to ‘fuck off’ and all of a sudden I was, like, ‘Now what do I do?’ Australia means… I can’t even describe what it means to me. I’m so honoured that the audiences there stick with me through all these changes.”
One question I have been especially keen to ask is if Townsend still works with The Atomic Clock himself, Gene Hoglan. A one-time member of Death, Dark Angel and Strapping Young Lad, Hoglan is one of extreme metals’ most celebrated drummers and percussionists. In a far reaching answer to the question, Townsend offers significant insight into the reasons for the demise of Strapping Young Lad and commentary on the dynamic that existed between the bands members.
“It’s unfortunate, but no, I don’t work with him [Hoglan]. I mean, I tried to get a couple of things going after Strapping, but it was a rough break-up, if you know what I mean. Gene loved Strapping’ and for me to pull the rug out from under him and the rest of the guys… we’re friends now, and we talk and we have a good relationship when we see each other, but it was really hard. When I quit doing drugs, when I changed and I had to tell those guys, ‘Look, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t be the front man for (Strapping’), I need to get out of this’, their reaction was not like: ‘Oh, okay, Dev. We totally understand. All cool’. They were like, ‘We don’t understand. But okay’.”
The achievements obtained in Strapping’ with the legendary percussionist clearly still resonate with Townsend.
“I miss Gene, I miss playing with Gene to this day, because we were really connected. It was so easy for me to write with him. I tried to put a couple of things together, but I think it was sort of kept at an arm’s distance just so, frankly, he wouldn’t get worked up about something and then have it pulled away again, maybe. When I see Gene I’ve got nothing but affection for the guy. And you know, he gave me his blessing during the time, ‘Dude, I’m going to have a kid. I’m changing. Everything’s changing.” He was like, ‘I don’t relate, but I want the best for you, so go for it.’ You know what I mean?”
I mention my own Gene Hoglan story. At the before mentioned meet and greet in ’99 I asked Hoglan (who had performed that evening) if he was still working with Chuck Schuldiner and Death. I pressed him a little on the Death related questions and the man glared at me. I thought, ‘Fair enough. I’ve gone too far there.’ Townsend just chuckles and the subject quickly returns to his sentimental musings.
“We’ve all got a temper, you know? My temper was clear. You listen to the lyrics and everything in Strapping… The bottom line is I’ve never played with a drummer that I enjoyed playing with more than Gene. And I love Gene. He was such a close friend to me. And when I told him I had to leave the band he called me and he gave me his blessing to leave, but, you know, he never wanted kids. He wanted to keep crushing metal, and I just found it was killing me, man. It was actually before kids. I just realised, you know, I was putting up such a front. Then all of a sudden when I realised I wasn’t a tough guy, I can’t get up on stage and be like, ‘Fuck all of you’. I feel like a fraud. I feel like a total charlatan doing this shit. And now that I’ve recognised that within myself I can’t do this, man. Everybody, Byron (Stroud- bass), Jed (Simon- guitars) and Gene, they were like… I remember Byron going, ‘Oh, dude, we’ve always known that. But it was fun. That was kind of why it works’.”
Friendships intact, it’s the final point in Townsend’s next comment that many metal fans can only hope is a temporary condition.
“We got together recently up in Kelowna [British Columbia, Canada] and we all had a good time together. Jed and I keep in contact probably more than anybody. It’s a healthy thing, man. But, it [Strapping’ breakup] was just really hard. And, as a result of that, I think I kind of forfeited my ability to play with Gene Hoglan”.
There you have it.
Catch the Devin Townsend Project at the following venues through May. Tickets from MJR Presents.
Saturday, 20th May 2017
The Triffid, Brisbane
Tickets: MJR Presents
Monday, 22nd May 2017
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: MJR Presents
Tuesday, 23rd May 2017 – NEW SHOW
170 Russell, Melbourne
Tickets: MJR Presents
– SOLD OUT
170 Russell, Melbourne
Tickets: MJR Presents
Friday, 26th May 2017
Tickets: MJR Presents