Devin Townsend interview: 'When I look back at my musical catalogue, Z² is going to define it'

The Canadian maverick discusses motivations, female vocalists and bringing a heavy metal extravaganza to the Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture

Devin Townsend is an artist of incredible variety and breadth, with an extremely loyal and dedicated fan base. In 2014 alone, he has released an ethereal country and western record (Casualties of Cool) and is gearing up to release a double album, , the sequel to Ziltoid the Omniscient, a record about an extra-terrestrial who travels to Earth in search of the universe’s ultimate cup of coffee.

Townsend began his career working with a number of musicians and bands on various projects, including Steve Vai, The Wildhearts and former Metallica bassist, Jason Newsted.

Despite these early notable collaborations, Townsend became discouraged, and decided to form his own band, Strapping Young Lad. Never wanting to be tied down by genre, he also released his own solo albums, which deal in a broad range of different musical styles, including prog rock, ambient soundscapes, pop metal and new age.

Townsend straddles a fascinating line in the music world. He’s hardly a household name, and yet his current band, Devin Townsend Project, have sold out the Royal Albert Hall in less than 3 days.

Casualties of Cool and Z² have had quite long gestation periods compared to many of your other records…

Casualties of Cool has, didn’t. Casualties… is something that continues to be really important to me. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work on a record for that amount of time since Ocean Machine. In hindsight, I think Casualties… is a bit long, but it’s the only record that I’ve done recently that I feel really attached too.

wasn’t rushed, but hurried along, simply because I had the opportunity to do it. It’s something that I’ve been threatening and wanting to do for years. It had to be written and recorded at lightning speed, but I’d just finished Casualties… so I was really tired. It became a struggle for me because I didn’t want to phone it in.

The end result is that ended up being a real success for me musically, but also because when I was most willing to call it quits, I didn’t. I saw it through and got it to the very end. I think, when I look back at my musical catalogue, is what’s going to define it.

The first disc, Sky Blue, is the next step up from Epicloud but the melodies aren’t as basic, it’s a lot more melancholy, it’s maybe a little more washed out colour wise, it’s not as vibrant, but it really speaks for the fact that I couldn’t do a happy record right now, that’s not where I was at.

My view on the second disc, Dark Matters, is different again. Seven years have gone by since the first Ziltoid. That was a really psychological record for me and he was a representation of me at that time, you know, I’d just had a kid, I was coming out of drugs and quitting my band, Strapping Young Lad, stuff like that. I just don’t care about that stuff as much as I did.

I’ve got other kids around me now like, my sister’s kids and my neighbour’s kids and they became really interested in Ziltoid and started giving me ideas for the story. So Z² ended up being like a story for kids, just with really savage music, orchestras, choirs and all that stuff. I started thinking about “Who am I trying to reach with this record?”

The music is easy for me to write but conceptually what do I want to do? I decided I was going to make it a Fifties Sci-Fi Radio show, make it something that 12-year-old kids can get into, but also 45year old dudes can appreciate as well. It’s a real success for me, but man, if anything was going to break me it was that.

With Casualties..., I took a year more than I needed to, because I could, and that was just glorious, I loved that. But Z² was up to the last second re-mixing and refining, it was a pain in the ass.

You’ve got some guests on Z², Anneke Van Giersbergen is back and Chris Jericho from Fozzy…

Yeah and we’ve got Dominique Lenore Persi from Stolen Babies playing the War Princess. We toured with them and a lot of what I write lends itself to female voices because the register I tend to write in is high.

I really like female singers; I’ve got zero interest in working with male singers. Any male voice I need to do, I can do. When I have an opportunity to work with a woman who isn’t an idiot and has a lot of potential for what I tend to write, then I’m just like “We gotta do something!” Dominique is very theatrical and I thought she’d be a great evil war princess, it was perfect.

Speaking of strong female voices, you brought back Ché Aimee Dorval for Casualties of Cool, who you’ve worked with previously on Ki. What was it about her voice that you thought lent itself to that project?

It’s Blues-y; her voice sounds like it doesn’t care if you’re listening or not. Ché and I don’t talk much but it’s a relationship where I don’t feel like I need too. When we sing together, there’s a real sense of “I know you really well”, and vice-versa. I think that was really important for the record because I didn’t want us to be recording in the same room together. I wanted to send her files and have her send them back so that when I worked on it in the middle of the night, I wasn’t hearing somebody with relationships, hopes, fears and loves, it was just this voice coming through the computer.

My relationship with Anneke is much different, it’s much more of a Sonny and Cher vibe but it works great. I’ve worked with so many female singers in the past, I don’t know if I’m going to continue doing that. It’s not like it’s an infinite pool of inspiration for me. I had a bunch of styles where I wanted to use female voices, which started with my infatuation with Enya years ago, but now that I’ve done most of them, I can’t think of any other directions to go with that.

When you initially started working on Casualties of Cool, you had no intentions to release it publicly. At what point did you think you may want other people to hear this material?

I sent the song Daddy to Ché, she sent it back and I played it to my wife and she said “That’s really cool”. I think that was the point, and the track you hear on the record is the demo that Ché did. There was no pressure put on it, I just kept sending Ché and Morgan (Ågren, drummer) a ton of songs.

Morgan was another big part of it for me too because he’s one of the best drummers ever right? His attention to detail is a rarity. His facility to do insane things is unparalleled but he doesn’t if it’s not needed. For Casualties… I needed an awesome drummer that knows when to shut up! The three of us being the foundation of the group just seemed too really fit.

You’ve been very open in the past about being diagnosed with Bipolar. Do you think there’s a correlation between your diagnosis and the music you write?

When I stopped drinking and smoking weed, the symptoms of bipolar went away almost completely. I haven’t had a swing in 15 years, so when I quit all that, I thought, “Maybe it was a misdiagnosis”. Maybe some people just shouldn’t be messing with their chemistry. I have ups and downs, births and deaths, I run a business and I got people on salary.

Yeah I get depressed, and yeah I get angry, but it’s been literally years since it’s been something I can’t control. So for a while, I thought maybe it was a misdiagnosis but when I look at my output, it is so stereotypically bipolar, if you want to look at it from a real literal point of view. So I thought, well maybe that’s where it’s put itself.

The counter argument to that is once I’ve worked on something so intensely for, however long, once I’m finished, the last thing I want to do next, is that again. I think anybody who invests that much energy in one direction, unless they’re making so much money that it’s not an option, why wouldn’t you go in the opposite direction?

So, when people talk to me about bipolar, I’m very willing to talk about it but I’m not entirely convinced that it wasn’t just somebody doing drugs who shouldn’t be. There were times when I was doing interviews and I was high as a kite and people at the time were thinking “this guy’s nuts!” So of course, anyone who sees me and hears me saying that stuff they’re gonna think, “Yeah, this guy’s got serious mental issues.”

I think my diagnosis was based on me experimenting with mushrooms and acid, the sort of stuff I did when I was a kid. Over the course of a year, I went to the psychiatrist every month and by the end of it he said, “You know there’s a good chance that you don’t have bipolar.”

To this day, I still wear the whole, “He’s crazy, he’s bipolar” thing. But then, what am I gonna do? I mean, am I gonna fight it? No! I mean, you make your bed.

Do I hang my head and refuse to follow the path? Or, do I use the opportunity that I have now, for the voice that I’ve been given publically to try and explain, lyrically, some of those past things? With Addicted, with Deconstruction, with Ki, with Ghost. All these things lyrically are based on, “What I meant to say was this, but it was clouded by delusion.”

We have to talk about your upcoming show at the Royal Albert Hall. What can you tell us about that?

I went down there today, God, what a venue! I was thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I get to do this!” but at the same time, I can’t spend too much time feeling overwhelmed or un-worthy. Ultimately it’s a step towards something even bigger. The opportunities that I’ve been given recently like the Roundhouse or Sonisphere or Royal Albert, are being presented because each step prior makes the people who are responsible for booking these things say “Maybe he can do that!” And someone has to, these venues exist, these shows exist.

My motivation to do it isn’t because I want people to see me as the guy that can do it. My role is to be the figurehead for it, but it’s not just me, it’s a ton of people. The crew I have around me and the team of artists that I’ve found myself with are capable of presenting things that an audience are really going to enjoy. I don’t know if ‘help’ people is too ambitious a word, but we want people to come out of a bad week and see a bunch of puppet aliens and have a good time…that’s it.

Z² is released via HevyDevy October 27th. Casualties of Cool is out now. Devin Townsend Project play Royal Albert Hall on 13th April 2015