Radio Metal recently conducted an interview with Canadian musician/producer Devin Townsend (STRAPPING YOUNG LAD, STEVE VAI, LAMB OF GOD, DARKEST HOUR, GWAR). The entire 40-minute chat can now be streamed using the audio player below. A couple of excerpts follow.
Radio Metal: All through your career, you’ve been known to do completely crazy things, but “Deconstruction” [by the DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT] is probably the most over-the-top album you’ve ever done. Were there some things you did on “Deconstruction” that you refrained yourself from doing up until this album?
Devin: Yeah. The funny thing about “Deconstruction”, in my opinion, is that it’s one of the most creatively free things that I’ve done, but it’s also probably the sanest record that I’ve done. Obviously, it doesn’t sound that way, but I think there’s a difference between allowing yourself to be crazy and being unaccountable. That’s my definition of crazy. If you do things that are creatively free without a sense of accountability for it, I think you’re playing with fire. But in the past, I’ve done that. Not now: I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I take the garbage out on Thursday… It’s obnoxiously normal, right? So what I wanted to do was revisit that, and in a way, say, through “Deconstruction”: “Here’s something that on the surface appears very random and sort of crazy,” but to underline the fact that it was done with complete control. Let’s take these melodies, these ideas, these streams of consciousness, one thing leading to another… Let’s take these musical ideals and compound them with an orchestra and a choir. In that way, I think I’m able to say: “Look: yes, it is creatively free, but it’s absolutely controlled.” I took the weekend off, and I went home at five and played with my kid. At no time did “Deconstruction” take control of me. I think that’s what I was trying to discover through it: can you do it with you being in control, as opposed to it being in control of you? And it was taxing, but it was fun, too. “Ghost” is my way of saying: “Here’s a complicated statement”, with the ultimate point of it being that I’m not really connected emotionally with complicated music. I don’t think it’s necessary. The music I would prefer is simple, like folk or new age-y stuff, or whatever. I really do like that. Improvised music also. But I felt that in order to master the artistic bravery for me to make a record like “Ghost”, that is unabashedly what it is, I needed to make “Deconstruction”. I had to make a very complicated statement that says: “Hey, I’m not interested in complications.” So it sounds crazy, but I honestly don’t think it is!
Radio Metal: “Deconstruction” and “Ghost” really sound like opposite albums but they’re actually perfectly complementary. Both albums call for the other. I mean, when “Deconstruction” ends all we want is to listen to some peaceful and calm music to kind of clean the wounds, and this is exactly what “Ghost” provides. Did you know from the start that each album would be an answer to the other?
Devin: I’d like to be able to sit back and say: “Oh yeah, I planned it all completely.” In a kind of broad sense, I did, but even the best-laid plans always tend to morph. The four records have ended up… The ultimate feeling I get from all four is what I was hoping I would achieve. The specifics have changed a little bit, like there’s songs I thought were important in the scheme of it that didn’t make it. Things I thought would be less important ended up playing a bigger role, etc. The complementary elements of it are largely coincidental, but the reason why it does work is because the chronology of it was absolutely intentional. I knew that “Ki” was supposed to mean this, and then that would lead to “Addicted”, which was supposed to mean this, and ultimately, it ends with this kind of neutral feeling, and then it loops back to “Ki”. Those elements I was aware of. But the specifics of how it was gonna work, I ultimately left up to trial and error.
Radio Metal: “Deconstruction” sounds like it was done with no restraint, no compromise and no consideration for any rules: pure creative freedom. It sounds like the kind of extreme and crazy things we usually do to eradicate all of our frustrations, as if we had nothing to lose. Was this the state of mind you were into when you were doing this album? Did you have any frustrations to eradicate?
Devin: In the past, I’ve used catharsis as an excuse to do things that have a lack of artistic accountability, if you follow. I was like: “Oh, I’m just being cathartic.” When I was making “Deconstruction”, I thought there was a difference between catharsis and allowing myself just to trust that I was not going to do things that were bad. In the past, everything that I’ve done that I’ve been artistically on the fence about — in terms of its intention being sadistic or cruel or whatever — ultimately came from me not being in control of my own mind. Some people shoot and do drugs, some people shoot and drink. In my case, it took me experimenting with it and making some public mistakes that I was able to say: “Oh, OK, note to self: you might want to avoid that.” So “Deconstruction” almost gave clarity to these other times in my musical output, where I’ve experimented with the same thing. But ultimately, in my mind, I stopped short at some of the things I was able to do on “Deconstruction”, because I was either becoming too fascinated with myself, as with “Infinity”, or too afraid of myself, as with “Alien”. When the time came to do “Deconstruction”, the idea was like: “Face yourself. Really be aware of whether or not you believe in the potential of people in general.” I honestly believe that, with every day that goes by, I get a little less intelligent. But as a result of that, I was just like: “Do you think that at the root of it, you’re a bad person? Do you think that, in a situation where you have the opportunity of doing a bad thing, and you know it’s a bad thing to do, if you give yourself complete freedom, your true nature will show and you will act on that?” I had no idea. So I think I really had to be like: “Give yourself every opportunity to fail and see what happens with a clear mind.” And very soon, I recognized within myself that if it’s accountable for itself, if you put those elements of yourself that are self-destructive in the light, they will say: “Go for it, do that horrible thing.” However, it’s gonna be you that does it. It’s not gonna be a shadow of you, it’s not gonna be a puppet, it’s not gonna be from the shade. It’s gonna be right out, you know? And at that point, when it was face with the accountability of itself, it balked completely. The self-destructive mechanism in me was a scared child when it was forced to be accountable for itself. Very quickly, I recognized I wasn’t afraid of myself. In all honesty, presented with the option of doing the right thing or the wrong thing, I’ll do the right thing. From there, I was just like: “Oh, OK. In that case, if you want to be creative, there’s no limits to it. And as far as I can throw it, I will.” But the point of the record is that this is unimportant. This is artistic and mental masturbation. The whole idea of that is, of what value is it compared to the simple things? The elegant things in life are things that you can say in one or two words, as opposed to five or six hundred other things. Oh, I don’t shut up! Jesus Christ, I don’t stop! However, I think there is a huge difference between who I am and what I’m fortunate enough to be able to say in music. Like, who am I? I’m a mess. But artistically, I think I’m getting to a point where I’m not interested in the specifics of infinity. I’m interested in the tiny little equations that are metaphors for it. There it is; that’s infinity. I like that, it’s very nice. What the hell was I trying to say? I don’t know!
Radio Metal: There are many very talented guests on “Deconstruction”. How did you decide to have them on the album? Was the music somehow begging to have them or was it a way to give a difficult album extra attention, marketing-wise?
Devin: It happened in both those ways. When I first started writing the riffs, there were certain riffs where I thought: “I’ve got a friend who would be perfect for this”. And when I started doing interviews, I said: “Hey, I’m gonna include these people on the record.” And the response was overwhelmingly: “Oh, I see. So you’re gonna take all these people and use their names to sell your record.” And I thought to myself: “That’s exactly how it’s gonna come across.” I was embarrassed about it, and I was like: “OK, I’m not going to do it, I’m not gonna include these people on the record.” Then I started recording it, and when those parts came up, I was like: “But I hear those people on it!” And because lyrically and conceptually there’s a lot of different… not characters, but different points of view, I thought it would be interesting to have different voices. So in the end I decided to follow this idea. It’s not like a feature, it’s like a color. In a lot of ways, it’s also a personal endorsement for me to have somebody I love as a person and also as a musician, to be able to say I back it. So I started with one and then decided to just go for it. Then I was stuck with the question: “How are you going to rationalize this in the press?” I phoned the label and ask them: “Can we not put a big sticker on the front of the album that says ‘Featuring whoever?'” They were OK with it. So now, when we do promo, people are gonna know who’s on it, but we didn’t put it on the press release. And when people ask me about it, I’m trying not to list all the persons who participated. There’s some really cool people on it, they have really small parts, and for the most part they’re friends of mine and have been for a long time. In a lot of cases, they’re like my age, with children, playing in heavy metal bands and trying to figure it out. It was a wonderful thing for me to have, but at the same time, there’s a 60-piece orchestra, and there’s a choir. I was trying to make something that was texturally interesting, without any of it being more of a focus than the entire project. The focus of the project, I’m hoping, will be the theme of it, which is everything in the kitchen sink. But really, I choose things that I find pretty and nice. Time will tell whether or not that makes any sense! We’ll see!
Read the entire interview from Radio Metal.