The best thing about being a music hack (apart from the free records and gig tickets, natch) is getting the occasional opportunity to ask questions of artists you really love. So when I was informed that idiosyncratic prog-metal legend Devin Townsend was promoting his new album, I replied like a shot – and was lucky enough to get the chance to quiz him about his new record, KI, his musical career and life in general. [image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
So, read on to discover the story behind KI, what Townsend thinks of the decline of the major labels, and what message he’d send to an alien civilisation…
TDP: Mr Townsend, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Let’s get to the meat, here – your new album KI is the first of a four-album conceptual suite. How and when was the idea born, and what sort of nurturing process went into writing and recording it?
Devin Townsend: The concept has been evolving for several years through a process of “self discovery” (so to speak)… In terms of the nurturing, I think much of it had to do with getting to the root of why I began playing music in the first place, and realizing that through all the bullshit, I still love music and need to create it. I had stopped drinking and smoking and, by default, couldn’t remember how to write for a full year. I did a bunch of manual labor etc, then when I actually did pick up the guitar again, the process I had been through appeared suddenly as four distinct styles that have morphed into four distinct albums that will be out by the end of the year.
TDP: KI is very quiet and restrained by comparison to the music that you’re best known for; is this something that has always been lurking within you, waiting to come out? How do you feel your early career constrained your development as a solo artist and songwriter?
Devin Townsend: I believe that I don’t have much control over my musical direction from time to time – for example, there was never a preconceived idea to create the Ziltoid character for example, who could have known? But when it does come, I just go with it. KI appeared as a result of a certain period of my life in which those sounds were the most appropriate representation of that period.
TDP: I’ve always gotten a sense from your heavier material that you’re a kind of “outsider artist” in metal; a sense that you love its potential and its power, but that it also frustrated you with its cultural limitations, and that your work was simultaneously homage and criticism and spoof all rolled into one. Am I reading more into than is really there? Where – if anywhere – does your musical heart really feel most comfortable?
Devin Townsend: Absolutely, and I’m quite flattered that you picked that out. I LOVE metal as a dynamic, in fact… there are several topics in life that can be illustrated properly by no other genre (in my opinion) as heavily. But in the scheme of MUSIC, that dynamic to the exclusion of all others is like a diet of only sugar, too much of a good thing and eventually you crave other things. I was definitely an outsider in the metal scene, and found myself relating to very few of my fellow musicians. However, when I work outside of the popular metal clique, I find myself actually not that unusual or “freakish”; sometimes the nonconformists have guidelines that are stifling. I want to write many styles, eventually soundtracks.
TDP: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that KI “is the introduction to the story” that the four albums will tell. Would you please explain a little of that story for us here? To what degree is it autobiographical, if at all?
Devin Townsend: Yes, autobiographical (every album has been), and the story is a loose metaphor to the personal changes I’ve been through. In fact though, you don’t need to follow a story to participate, but if you’re interested, it’s there. Basically, it clarifies past musical decisions on my part and sets up the future output. Each album has a theme that in essence “purges” a lot for me… the next album, Addicted, is my version of the new Nickelback album… heavy pop about sex. Unfortunately, my view of sex is pretty literal, so it won’t be overly sexy. You can dance to it, though!
TDP: If you could choose one truth or feeling that every listener would take away from the new cycle of albums, what would it be?
Devin Townsend: Be honest with yourself. No one has the answers. Be liberated by the fact that we’re not that special.
TDP: How do you feel when you see news items on the continued decline of the major record labels? How differently do you approach your art as a business to the way you did, say, a decade ago?
Devin Townsend: Full speed ahead! I think it’s hilarious, it will separate the men from the boys. Anyone who quits music because of the state of the industry was never making music for themselves in the first place, and therefore it makes no difference to me personally. Embrace the internet and change with the times. The dinosaurs are going extinct, but music is here to stay.
TDP: What would you say is the best “battle plan” for a young band starting out today?
Devin Townsend: Play from your fucking heart.
TDP: Are there any new bands that you think people of taste should be listening out for in particular? What’s been on your MP3 player recently?
Devin Townsend: Paul Horn, Ravi Shankar, Ween, Tiesto, Stravinsky, Gojira, The Young Gods, Grotus, Nickleback, Behemoth, The Vengaboys and Raffi.
TDP: If you could go back in time and visit yourself on the day you chose to be a musician and give yourself one hard-earned piece of advice, what would you say?
Devin Townsend: Start exercising now, and when you produce Lamb of God, don’t stop brushing your teeth.
TDP: If you hadn’t ended up as a career musician, where do you think you’d be right now, and what would you be doing?
Devin Townsend: Other than music, I am qualified to flip hamburgers. I could see being into carpentry however, and I currently enjoy manual labor from time to time.
TDP: Finally: imagine for a moment the SETI geeks realise their dream and catch an incoming signal from an alien civilisation far superior to our own in every way… but it turns out that the only way they could patch into our communications networks was via Twitter, and that you get chosen to compose a message back explaining what human beings are, using only 140 characters. What would your message be?
Devin Townsend: x2 + y2 = z2 I have a hard time believing you’ve come billions of miles to interact with a spieces who can have all problems solved by copulating once a month. Donuts!
TDP: Thanks again for your time, Mr Townsend; looking forward to the new albums! Good luck.