DEVIN TOWNSEND – interview
Devin Townsend recently announced the 3rd release in his Devolution series – ‘Empath Live In America’, will be launched on the 4th August 2023. The Devolution series so far has comprised some unique live performances, and this one is no different. ‘Empath Live In America’ is a document of the tour that was cut short in early 2020 due to the onset of the pandemic. A tour which represented a stripped back version of the “Order of Magnitude” band, which made for another unique and special night for the audience. No backing track, no setlist, songs by request and pure madness and fun times. The line-up for this album saw Devin joined by Mike Keneally, Nathan Navarro, Diego Tejeida, Morgan Ågren & Ché Aimee Dorval. ‘Devolution #3 – Empath Live In America’ will be available as a limited CD digipak, Gatefold 180g 2LP & as digital album. Pre-order here: https://devin-townsend.lnk.to/DevolutionSeries3-Empath-LiveInAmerica
Actually, every one of Devin’s live performances has been pure fun and that’s why I jumped at the occasion of a chat with him prior to one of the shows he performed on the American soil, on July 15th. The interview was via zoom. You find below the audio version and a text transcription, combined with various photos taken by me at the latest of Devin’s shows in Oslo or some of the clips containing tracks from the latest release. Enjoy and do look forward for the upcoming materials
Devin: Hello, hello, hello! What’s your name?
A. I’m Andrea.
Devin: Nice to meet you, Andrea.
A: Likewise, Paul. It says Paul on the screen.
Devin: Yeah, true. Today I’m Paul.
A: How did you come with a devolution wordplay? I really like it.
Devin: Oh, it seemed like it made sense. I think that might not have been my idea either. I think that might have been the labels. So I can’t claim being clever on that one.
A: It was witty. Whoever came up with it had a witty one. Do you feel that people understood Snuggles and Puzzles now that they’ve been out for a while?
Devin: Not at all.
A: Do you listen to them still?
Devin: Yeah, I love it. It’s some of my favorite work that I’ve ever been involved in. And it has inspired me greatly for music that I’m intending to do in the future. It was less about the music and more about the process because the process I found fascinating.
A: Okay, looking forward for what’s to come. I’m still struggling to get to them. They made sense sometimes, sometimes they don’t. But I guess that’s the joy of music.
Devin: I think what they, the reason why they mean so much to me is they were a direct representation of my experience during the pandemic. And I think one thing that perhaps the lack of understanding of those two records implies to me is the fact that the pandemic was so idiosyncratic. Everybody’s experience was so unique that it’s hard to technically create something about your experience during a pandemic that has a large reach just because it was such a specific thing. But I’m proud of it, in the fact that it represented my specific thing accurately.
A: Actually, during those times, years, I don’t know, it felt like centuries sometimes. You ended up doing quite a lot of online streamings. I have several questions related to that. Which was the aspect of doing online streams that was the most challenging for you?
Devin: It’s just the technical aspect for sure. Because while I was trying to figure out the process, we were all still in lockdown. So I couldn’t, I couldn’t really accumulate the help that I would typically be able to ask for by having Mike St. John or friends of mine in the technical field come in and solve problems. So I had to do a lot of research and I had to do a lot of troubleshooting in the realm of something that I had never done before. And I think some of that ended up being quaint because we were, you know, I used video game controllers to change cameras for example. I used a fan to as prop, but necessity being the mother of invention, it seemed to work. And I guess that was the objective. Rather than be perfect, I just needed it to work. But that technical side of it really, I felt my brain got about 2% bigger.
A: That’s nice to know. I really liked all the decorations you ended up with during the various shows.
Devin: Yeah, me too. I, again, necessity being the mother of invention, I was limited to what we could present as an aesthetic angle. So whatever was in the cupboard ended up being that. And it’s good to know that it didn’t fall on deaf ears.
A: You made some smiles for some people. I guess that’s a good thing.
Devin: That’s the objective.
A: Do you think there’s a future in online streaming now that the pandemics ended?
Devin: That’s a good question. Probably, but not to the extent that it was, clearly because there’s options, right? But I guess one thing to be aware of is that if we’ve had one pandemic, there’s a good chance that there’s more. So I think that if that’s the case, then yeah, it’s probably good to have a vocabulary in doing such things.
A: Good thing you’re going to have your studio ready by then. How do you feel knowing that your lyrics or stage performance are walking people through some tough moments of their lives? And what kind of vibe does that give you as a creator, as a performer?
Devin: Well, I’ve struggled with that thought because I have often held to the opinion that musicians and artists are conduits to things more so than being directly responsible for it. I think your bias and your personality will of course shape whatever the output is. So it’s a specific aesthetic, but really the foundation of any good music in my opinion comes from a collective unconscious or a source that you’re only able to tap into. So if it affects people in positive ways, I feel like I have simply done a good job at retrieving the information more so than being responsible for it. And so if people resonate with that, it makes me feel grateful for the opportunity and happy that we’ve done a good job more so than…
You know, the music that I write helps me more than anything else. That’s my foundational reason for doing it, is it helps me. I listen to the music that I write because it helps me with my life. It helps me with my process and progress and lack thereof sometimes. And so if other people relate to it in the same way, I’m grateful that we got it right to some degree.
A: There was this moment I remember when you performed in Oslo a while ago and you were about to play Spirits Will Collide and then you told everybody in there that “hey people, no matter who you are, you are being loved”. And I actually got quite teary-eyed because I realized, well, I was in a happy place luckily, but I realized that not everybody was like that in the moment. And then, in that moment, you maybe gave some people a hand from the stage, just get up and be loved. And that song is also very intense in my opinion, so that was nice.
Devin: Thank you. But again, it’s the same thing for me. Like, you know, when I’m playing, I feel very grateful for the opportunity to play. I think that one thing that it has always been important to me, and now more so than ever, to keep in mind is that if you’re playing music, you’re trying to be of some degree of service to people or some degree of help to people. Like that’s the objective for it. And in order to do that efficiently as a person, I think the workload is less about writing music and more about trying to find ways to remain balanced as a person. Because the job is to try and make things better rather than worse. But again, it’s a slight distinction between doing that and being the person that’s doing it. Like this is my mission or whatever, versus I’m a part of the process, right?
Like, music exists independent of artists and audience. And so the artist’s role is to just facilitate a certain part of that process. And the audience’s role is also to facilitate a certain part of that process. And, you know, I’m grateful for it in the same way that some of the audience is grateful for hearing it.
A: Exactly. Payback for both sides.
Devin: Everybody’s just kind of like explorers and we’re all just kind of at different places in it and we meet each other and then eventually we’re gone, right?
A: It’s so much of a heartwarming feeling when you are included as audience, in my opinion. I’m going to quite a lot of concerts where it feels like the artists are only about I’m bringing my guitar and my drums and I’m performing and I’m out of here and I’m getting my money. And those feel often like the boring concerts.
Devin: But I also feel the same way as an artist. Like if that’s what you’re doing, it’s a pain in the ass. It’s like touring is not an easy life necessarily. It’s an interesting life, but it’s not like a blissful one when it comes to sleep and to travel. And all the things that go into it are taxing on a body. And performing is also taxing your throat to your mental health. There are being around 20 people all day, every day for eight weeks. Like an inch and a half from each other in a bus. This is not a complaint, but it’s definitely intense.
So if you choose to do that, you might as well make it something that’s a good experience, as opposed to just getting on stage and playing and getting off stage. Because I think what ends up happening in that capacity is probably you just end up drinking a lot.
A: Yeah, it’s better to be friends than just go to work.
Devin: Yeah, that’s a great analogy.
A: A bit about this devolution live in America. So you don’t say live at a certain venue. Are these songs recorded all over the American tour that you’ve done?
Devin: I think there was three venues that I took those shows from.
A: Based on what have you made that decision, if I may ask?
Devin: The shows that I didn’t think were awful. Because I mean, the nature of that devolution project was a very unique tour for me. The one that I’m doing right now is really fastidious in its setup. I want the drums to be played exactly like the drums are recorded. I want the bass to be exactly like it is. I want the vocals to be as good as I can have it and replicate an experience. Because for the most part, the music that I’m involved in documents a process. And that process is one of hopefully growth. Sometimes it’s been a process of regression. But for the most part, I wanted to document like moving forward. And so if people participate in the music, it’s meant to be like a tangible example of that process. So more often than not, I want it to be exactly like the record. I want it to be perfect.
But on that tour, the Empath tour, it was absolutely not that. It was friends of mine that all played different styles. Whether or not it’s Morgan and Che or Mike Keneally or Diego or Nathan or whoever’s involved with it. They’re not the people necessarily that recorded it. Che and I are good friends, but her voice is not necessarily at all like Anneke’s. No, no, no. It’s much different. So basically the idea with the devolution was I asked the audience to request songs, and then we would learn them on stage.
A: I was about to ask how did that happen, since you have a discography that covers hundreds of songs.
Devin: And some of the songs on the record prove sometimes it works better than others. But, but I think the thing that was important about that devolution album is the fact that there are no click tracks, it’s not a controlled environment. And perhaps part of the growth process for me as an artist is having to learn to let some of that go. Right. You can’t control this group of people. You can’t control what the audience asked for. You can’t control your voice or whatever. So, what do you know?
A: Where you out of your comfort zone?
Devin: Oh, yeah. Oh my God.
A: Did you enjoy it?
Devin: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Very much. But it also made me realize that’s not exactly what I want to do. You know, like, I think it’s, I think it’s good to have that experience to say, okay, well, here’s music interpreted in a way that is not perfect. And sometimes like a disaster in some ways. But, you know, it was good to have that experience and it won’t be the last time either because I enjoy certain things that come from that type of experience that you couldn’t get from a controlled environment. It’s just kind of interesting.
A: Some of the coolest parts of the gig sometimes are the impro parts for me. I know some of those musicians from other projects. I watch Morgan with some of the other stuff he is doing. He’s a fantastic drummer. It’s hard to go wrong with him. He can just pick up anything probably.
Devin: Yeah. Yeah. Having people that are specific for the mindset that you’re trying to achieve, right? Like Morgan, he is perfect for that. But for the current situation, when I am on tour now, I’m trying to make it perfect. Because I always wanted to do that too. You know, the drummer that I have out here for this is great for that because every night it’s the same thing. And it’s, you know, the sound man every night, it’s the same thing. And it’s like, I love that too. So more than anything else, the Devolution series is a document of experiments, I guess.
A: Looking forward to hear it then. Now, Casualties of cool. Despite the fact that you have hundreds of songs out there, I am absolutely sold to that album. I think it’s so beautiful. And I’m glad you went into that direction.
Devin: Me too. You know, I think the thing is, is the, the only currency that I think I have as an artist really is that whatever I do, I do it because that’s what I want to do. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s going to translate to the entire audience clearly, like, something like Empath versus Strapping versus Ziltoid versus Snuggles versus Puzzle versus Casualties of Cool. It’s also different that unless you’re either a very open minded person or very tolerant person, the chances of all those things landing with you is going to be very slight. But the reason why they exist, in the ways that they do, is only because that’s what I find myself interested in. And because I’m interested in it. It’s going to be from the heart. If I didn’t do Casualties of Cool when I wanted to do it, what I would have put out instead wouldn’t have been what I wanted to do. It would have been what I think people wanted me to do. And same with Puzzle and Snuggles.
Actually, I just released something, or I just finished it today, and it comes out on Monday called Dreampiece , which is just music for sleep and it’s like new age kind of thing. But I’m also doing The Moth, what I want to.
I think that that’s what I bring to the table, as an artist, whether or not people enjoy it. I don’t think many could argue that I’m doing it for an authentic reason. And that’s, that’s most important to me.
A: I will sound like a fan girl, but I am hopefully one of the lucky ones that actually enjoys most of your music. There’s some of the older stuff I haven’t digested yet because there’s so much of the newer stuff. I don’t even know what new and old is and doesn’t really matter. But I love Casualties. I love Ziltoid. Empath I love them. And this is usually with all the artist that I like to follow, those where I can feel the genuine stuff rather than OK, we’ve made a good thrash metal album, we’re going to stick to the freaking trash metal for 100 years, even if it’s a copy paste album after copy paste album.
Devin: It’s the same thing as touring like what would be the motivation to continue other than finances if you were to do that again and again. And if you’re in a mid level scenario, I can’t imagine the finances would be enough to warrant the effort that goes into replicating a trash metal template over and over and over again. It’s like it’s a lot of work. I personally love the creative process. I love being able to follow ideas based on little clues that you get as you’re creating. That’s cool. I really like that. I wonder how that will fit into the whole process. The process is such a mess that you don’t know until you’ve excavated something that’s meant to be. And again, the Puzzle was one of my favorite things I’ve done, through a process that was so unusual, with pandemic and lockdown and the chaos that ensued. People would say, okay, well, I listened to that project and it’s just chaos. I’m like, well, I don’t know what your experience with the pandemic was, but that’s what mine was. It was just chaos. So of course it’s going to be chaos. It’s in the same way as now I feel my next road is the result of really, really working over the past two years to create some degree of order. And I have created this really interesting scenario for myself now that is very busy, very complicated, but it’s in order. And so I think that what I’ll do next will be a direct representation of that. And the Dream Piece thing is actually that, I love it. I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I love it more than 90% of the audience, actually 99% of the audience will. But I have to also make peace with the fact that I truly do love it. And so as a result of that, it’s as authentic to me as any of the past material, whether or not other people like it at all. But again, that’s where my criteria for whether or not it’s worth doing is. And so I just have to stick to it.
A: I think it’s your right to the creator. How about the upcoming Casualties of Cool follow up? I’ve heard some rumors about it
Devin: When Che and I first met each other, we didn’t know each other. And so a lot of the conceptual aspects of Casualties of Cool came from that. It all was subtle and mysterious and distant. And I think that’s what defined the nature of that project. And what’s funny about the first Casualties of Cool record is by the end of it, conceptually, we got to know each other. And so at that point, it was almost like two people were walking in parallel. There was no real crossover. It was like parallel. And so since that time, Che and I have become very close friends. There’s no longer a mystery. We’re friends now. And as a result of that, every time we get together to write, we end up just having a barbecue. You know what I mean?
So we’ve written one really cool song in the past eight years, nine or 10 years, maybe.
A: Make a barbecue soundtrack then.
Devin: Maybe. But I also feel that what’s interesting is when, when you get together with people that you love, that you care about, sometimes you don’t need to write. And I also feel that if we’re meant to write, then we’ll be compelled to. And if we’re meant to barbecue, then we’ll be compelled to. And thus far, it’s been barbecues.
A: Do you have any vocalists you enjoy right now? You envy, let’s actually let’s say, do you have any vocalists that you envy right now for their musical skills?
Devin: No, no, no music I listen to has vocals. And if it does, it’s usually chanting or things like that. So, so I don’t know, vocals just bug the shit out of me. It’s like, typically, I think the problem that I have with vocals is…Actually wait, you know what I really like, is Tinariwen. I don’t know if you’ve heard them. They’re a North African band. They traveled around the desert for years and write their music. They’re from a part of the world where you can’t freely write music. They’ve been threatened by their government. The album that I just love by them is really worth listening to. I like it because it’s sung in Arabic. Their lyrics are so beautiful because even in the face of relentless opposition, their lyrics are really beautiful. It’s really positive. This is the album, ELWAN.
Actually, there’s another that I just love as well. It also isn’t in English. It’s Juana Molina. Her album, Wednesday 21, is really beautiful. I think she sings in Portuguese. I like it because I like not being able to understand the lyrics. Then I can still participate in a human voice without having to participate in the sentiment.
A: Do you mix the songs of other bands in your head when you hear them? Or do you try not to?
Devin: No, I don’t really. Music gets stuck in my head only if I have to hear it every day. For example, they play a certain song for the soundcheck at the show. I just hate it. I wake up in the middle of the night with that song stuck in my head.
A: That’s obsessive. I’ll ask one more question. I watched some of your presentations on how you mix your stuff. Then you’re always going around and saying “I use this effect here and then I use that effect here”. Do you know all those effects by heart now? It seems like you’ve gathered so much experience with your software.
Devin: Software is an instrument. It’s like just learning how to play the saxophone. You learn how to play the instrument. Pro Tools, Ableton, Logic, they’re just instruments. I love them. They’re arguably my primary instrument. Or as much so as voice and guitar for sure. I love being able to have a method to articulate atmosphere. I like to say, okay, what am I trying to achieve with this particular passage in music? I want it to sound desperate. I want it to sound lonely. I want it to sound conflicted or whatever. To have the language within a software program to know how to achieve that is essential to my work.
A: It looks, indeed, very helpful when you’re presenting those.
Devin: I love it. One of the hardest things is not being able to do that while I’m on tour. Over this past tour, I put together a remote rig. It’s very small , something that I can create. I set up the hotel rooms like a studio. The only thing is I realized last night when I was recording that air conditioners are loud. The little fridges they have in the hotel are loud. People are running up and down the hallway. Typically, I like to be in a completely isolated environment. I use these headphones. At the same time, it’s not an accurate representation of a real world thing in my opinion. It’s a compromise.
A: You need to travel with your own soundproof box. Just for that.
Devin: Go on, that sounds right.
A: That’s the only idea I have. Thank you so much for your time and the music.
Devin: I hope your day is great.
A: Looking forward to Monday’s song.
Devin: I love it. The only thing I would say with the Dreampece is, considering people are used to what I do and you might try to pay attention to the Dreampiece stuff. It’s boring. But it’s not music to be paid attention to. It’s music as a background. When you’re drinking your coffee in the morning or when you’re sleeping, it’s what it’s meant for. Not to be focused on. It’s like a soundtrack.
Actually, Dreampiece seems to already be listed on Hevydevy.com webpage
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