By Mark Derricutt
Over the last week there have been lots of discussion surrounding the unfortunate events at last weekend's Windhand/Cough show at Auckland's 'Kings Arms Tavern', and if there's one one thing to take away from it - it's that you should always be prepared for the worst, and have some form of plan for dealing with it. It's with that in mind I sat down earlier this week to talk to Devin Townsend, the mastermind behind such disparate audio/visual wonders as Strapping Young Lad, Casualties of Cool, and Ziltoid the Omniscient; and it's also with that in mind that the moment the call landed, and my recording equipment started to roll - that thing's started to go awry and an unprepared, untested change in software/equipment worked in ways... unexpected.
Feeling the weight of disaster upon me, and any semblance of interview prep falling fast to the wayside I explained the situation to an understanding Devin, and quickly set about resolving the issue to a point we could move on, even if not to the desired level I wished, I adapted my dilemma to the interview itself.
You're about to start a 5 date tour of NZ/AU, starting in Auckland on Wednesday, May 17, moving to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth - what happens if something breaks down or amps blow up on say that first or second night? I'm sure it's happened in the past...
I think it (technology) is sentient. I think it's aware of us, it reacts to us, it's like every time I'm loading a web page to show someone something - that's the time it just... won't load. It's not only sentient but petulant - the internet's like a 15 year old kid. There's a lot of videos online of me having to deal with that very thing, like click-tracks coming through the front-of-house and the PA blowing up or the amps going down. But I tell you - one thing I've got going for me is having gone through a ton of these disasters in terms of "professionally", like I know how to deal with it - it doesn't frighten me. So if those things happen, it becomes part of the show, and that's it. To be honest, on this last run - the whole PA went down for like 15 minutes in Leipzig, Germany but we had a great time; everything worked out in the end and the PA came back on and we talked. And I think it's like that old adage: it's not WHAT happens, it's how you deal with it. If you throw yourself on the ground and have a tantrum every time something like that happens then I don't think this is the industry for you. So, I like to think I can deal with those things pretty efficiently.
Transcendence came out last year and I've been giving it another spin, and going through the back catalogue again getting things fresh in my ears, every release you've done has been different, but 'consistently' different, in the same way. One of the things that drew me to your music is that there's this one constant - the resonance of your voice; the balance between screams/clean singing and everything else changing around it.
Well thank you, I often say that everything that I do is the same face just with a different mask in a lot of ways, and that's been the case since the very beginning of my career, like my objectives musically haven't changed. It's just that as life progresses, as I get older, as I change - it's inevitable that the aesthetic is going to change, but... "me" - the person that I am, the voice is always going to be there. So I think that's a very accurate description, to be honest.
I remember picking up "Sex and Religion" by VAI some 24 or so years ago on CASSETTE...
I would have been about 20/21 years old, I mean I'm 44 now, and ahh, just as a sheer matter of perspective. It's lifetimes ago that I did that, it seems like yesterday in some ways but it was just - lifetimes ago, and I mean that literally. Like different versions of me, like five or six different versions of me ago. But in the same ways as the records have a similar thread, you know the voice back then is the same person, it's just my progression as a musician, as a human. I think is pretty well documented in my own mind by what I've done over the past 25 years, and I like to think that with what I'm doing with these online courses, I think I have something to say and I have a way to teach it to people as well, and I want to be of some service ultimately. Whether or not it's musically or teaching or anything - I want to help rather than hinder. So um, that's my objective I guess now.
How are the courses going? I see you had one yesterday and got your timezones out?
Yeah... daylight savings! It's really good. I've done 5 of the free lectures to try and get people on board. I've got about 150 students and it's 8 modules that at any time people can join, but it's a very comprehensive course in not only why I do things the way that I do, but exactly how I do it - from my ProTools sessions, to my equalisation and production tricks, how I think, how I play the guitar, how I set up my workspace, how I manage the business and what touring is like, how to micro-manage the finances of touring... all these things: the practical reality of it. My objective with that is I don't think that you need to bend to the commercial requirements that the music industry tends to impose on people: "because the industry has kinda gone to shit you need to play pop music", or you need to do a certain type of music - metal or otherwise. I think that if you're smart about it, and you work hard enough, you can do whatever you want - and that's what I'm trying to teach.
That's great, it's awesome to see established artists giving back to younger artists, not only sharing 'how you do things', but also 'how NOT to do things'
Yeah... and "here's what to expect". I think that's important, because it's not necessarily like anybody can avoid these things. It's like anybody who's had success has failed - over and over and over and over, and that's just the biggest thing... it's like how to teach people to anticipate those sorts of failures and what you do when you fail. Like these are things that are real practical value, you know - amidst the "this is the types of scales and this is the type of echo and EQ", I mean that's one thing - but really, it's "how do you pick yourself back up after making a colossal mess out of your professional life" - that is a real valuable skill I think, and it comes down to... everything is connected when it comes to that. It's not just a technique, it's all connected to the mindset that goes into how to do this right? You have to be determined, disciplined, and strong and all these things that... going back to perhaps the typical assumption of what someone who plays heavy rock is living a life of, it kinda flies in the face of that: this is not groupies, sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll; this is like - get up early, get your emails done, make your bed, exercise, make sure you get your shit together and get to work - every day. That's how you do it.
That's... kinda deep, and just realistic.
It's realistic - it sucks that realism is deep!
I was reading an interview about the disbandment of Strapping Young Lad, and how because of your diverse nature of creativity you didn't want to be stuck, or pigeon holed into always SYL after SYL after SYL, we just talked about learning from failures and moving on, and not bowing to what the industrial, or the fans want, is that a similar mindset to what your teaching? Not being stuck in the game...
Yeah that's it - it's not like some sort of new age ethos either. It's not like you have to learn to grow, I mean - we're GOING to grow, it's inevitable. The thing that I'm trying to get into peoples heads is that - the thing that's going to allow you to have creative freedom is to be strong enough to follow where your inclinations lead, because I think the temptation if you've been successful with something is to repeat it - ad nauseum, until the things that made it emotionally relevant no longer exist and it becomes a shell of that. So it's about listening to yourself, it's about listening to your needs, and your wants, and wading through the confusion and then on a subconscious level I think you end up knowing what it is you want to do. But it's all about being able to hear that, and for me it's taken years of like trying and failing, trying and failing, and different lifestyles and different sorts of activities that I engage in to try and light those fires but... I think I'm on a road right now that is really good, and it really requires just constantly checking in with myself to say "is this really what you want to do?" or "are you doing this because you're afraid of not being successful?". So you think you should write a pop song - right? or do you _really_ want to write a pop song? The difference between those two things is deceptive and slight - but makes all the difference in the world, cause if I write a pop song because I feel like writing a pop song, people with resonate with it. But if I write a pop song because I think that's what's going to take me to the next level and that's what I want, well that's - you know, you're sort of deceiving yourself in a lot of ways.
A bit of a tongue-in-cheek question here - what do you intend to fail at next? When thinking up ideas for the next album/project, how do you approach that? If you've got an idea, how soon do you throw it out if it's not working?
I think you have to take it pretty far before you throw it out, and maybe you could look at throwing it out as a type of failure if you want to. But I think you have to give things a fair shake. Some people seem to stop right at the starting gate, they're like "oh that'll never work", and there's a good chance that maybe your idea won't work, but I think you have to have to take it further than you may be comfortable with to know that. So I tend to commit to a lot of things, confuse everyone in my life - now I'm doing an orchestra, no wait - now I'm doing this ethereal rock record, no wait - now I'm going to do a true solo record. But I have to take it as far as I can until I find it's either really ticking those boxes emotionally for me or it's just leaving me cold, so what am I intending on failing at next? Oh god... who knows? Sobriety? Fidelity? I don't know, I mean - you can only do the best you can do and I think that I'm happy to follow where the muse wants to go so to speak. As long as I consistently check in as to whether or not the things that I'm doing are for the right reasons. It's very easy to say "Oh I think the next step for me would be to cheat on my wife" but then you dig deeper and you're like "No, you're just flattered by it, and you're super insecure" and so to do that would be to just fuck everything up, so there's just a practical example, not that that's on the radar but it's a practical example - the same thought process. It's like on the surface this should be a great thing to do; I'd love to do that - but the more you think about it the more you realise that it's something that's of no real practical value to you.
Can we expect more Ziltoid?
I have no idea, I really don't know. I mean, I like to think there's more in the tank, but I don't know, and it's funny as I talk to you, you say that it's deep - I don't think I'm deep at all, I think I'm just fucked, and I think I'm doing my best to try and cope with that. So with a real sober mind perhaps that's how it's manifested now, as I just overthink things but one thing I don't over think is what does come next, so if Ziltoid rears his head then I'm ready to answer the call.
...and with that - Devin had to go, another call, another interview, or maybe it was Ziltoid the Omniscient calling for another coffee... Only time will tell - all I know is, thru my own history of failure when it comes to recording, and interviewing, I managed to work thru it, compose myself, and have a great discussion about music, and the reality of being a modern musician.
Devin Townsend plays Auckland's Powerstation on Thursday, May 18th, 2017.
Devin Townsend Project
Thursday May 18 - Powerstation, Auckland
Saturday May 20 - The Triffid, Brisbane
Monday May 22 - Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Wednesday May 24 - 170 Russell, Melbourne
Friday May 26 - Capitol, Perth
Tickets via www.mjrpresents.com