A genius. A musical prodigy. A madman. Workaholic. The labels put on Devin Townsend are numerous, but when it all comes down the line, the music speaks for itself: It's just brilliant! When you get the offer to interview someone like Townsend you don't say no, not if you're me, anyway!
The night before the gig at the Aalborg Metal Festival, the German promotion guy calls me to confirm the interview. It turns out I have 15 minutes with the man, not the customary half hour! The one and a half pager full of questions is revised and prioritized accordingly.
The thing is; what can I expect from this brilliant musician? Will he start talking all by himself or will he clam up like an oyster? You can never know with these superstars of metal!
When the time has finally come, the tour manager takes me through the backstage area where I'm greeted by DTP drummer Ryan and Burton Bell nods from behind his laptop. Devin is hidden away in a room all by himself, far away from the rest of the travelling circus. He's wearing a headset, working on his laptop. He's wearing glasses, looking very relaxed and greets me openly.
After a couple of minutes of polite greetings and general small talk, we rush on with the interview questions - 15 minutes isn't a long time!
Thomas: You played in Hamburg two days ago, so yesterday must have been a day off. What do you do on days off? Touristy stuff or business stuff?
Devin: I work! I play or I write music. I'm working on several projects I bring with me so I can work on them in the hotel rooms or whatever.
Thomas: Do you bring your family along on tour?
Devin: No, no, I don't.
Thomas: I reckon you hear the same questions over and over again from people like myself. Is there a question that you always wanted to be asked and no one ever did?
Devin: Hmmm, I've probably been asked pretty much anything you can imagine at this point. I do so many interviews, too. I don't necessarily have too many unanswered questions [laughs].
Thomas: The Retinal Circus? How did it go?
Devin: It was good! I think it was more than just a raging success musically, because I definitely had that in terms of voice and performance. I mean, it's like, the amount of stress that goes into it. It was kind of inevitable that that was going to be the case. The planning has been going on for a year on and off on the technical side of it - but there was no rehearsal, right.
It made me realize a few things. First off, I'm not as much into the theatrical elements of it as I thought I would be, and it has allowed me through that experience to refine what I hope the future vision will be, which will be based more around visuals and lighting, and it also could hopefully include a real choir, more than too much of the theatrical element. I think definitely that's the direction we're heading in. I've got ideas for it. Overall it was good. We managed to get over a lot of fears in one show, which is pretty rewarding.
Thomas: Do you go to the theatre yourself?
Devin: No, no, the inspiration comes from movies and what have you. I tend to not do much. I tend to work, I tend to play guitar, get work around the house done and, you know, it's not a very interesting existence, believe it or not. It's all the stuff we do up here that's interesting - and very tiring. While I'm at home, when I have a day off, I try to just relax, which for me means work, right.
Thomas: What inspires you to create this crazy circus of music? Death, thrash, heavy metal, cabaret, theatre, pop, industrial, ambience - the sources seem endless. Is there a genre you wouldn't embrace?
Devin: Well, I mean, recently it's become more public the way that I write, and it has very little to do with the style. If I feel compelled to do something it's usually based on a reaction to what I did before or something in my life that has made it interesting for me or simply because I feel bored with what I did before.
My musical palette is I suppose very broad. I haven't found myself in a position where I'm not allowed to be that. It's more about the process and what motivates me to do it I think people ultimately should pay attention to. It's the motivation behind it and I think the motivation artistically is bound to come out in different ways. If it isn't, you know, you run the risk of getting stuck.
I think there are a lot of folks who aren't allowing themselves to represent these different frames of mind because it's either a financial risk or they think they haven't made enough of a name of themselves. To be honest, these bands have much nicer cars than I do [laughs], but for me, to follow where it leads has always been my primary objective. Even subconsciously I never had a mission or a plan, I just kind of react.
Thomas: Looking back, and I'm not going to ask you the classical 'is there an album you're particularly proud of' question, but rather, is there a moment in time where you thought: 'This was a quantum leap artistically, I've really blown the boundaries with this one'?
Devin: Ah, I guess it's a way of looking at my work. One thing doesn't necessarily compare to the other. There have been moments where I'd think to myself this is definitely the next step, I mean, like Infinity or Terria or Ki or Casualties which I'm working on now. In the hindsight, it's never a motivation to outdo the last. I mean, the stuff I'm working on right now is really strange music and I have no idea where it came from! [Laughs]
Thomas: I picture your music collection to be either huge or non-existent.
Devin: It's pretty much non-existent. I don't...I mean, there's something I like listening to. I like electronic music, and I like old music, from the 20s and I like that for its simplicity. Not that it's primitive, but I like primitive type things. It seems to resonate with me in a way that fusion and prog never does. I realized how much I prefer [Captain] Beefheart's music to [Frank] Zappa's music, because Zappa's just so scientific, and emotionally it does very little for me. I think that reactions are based on the emotional component of it, right, rather than the intellectual.
Thomas: Still, your own music's extremely compact.
Devin: Yeah, but again, I think that a lot of what I do that has much foresight. I'll just sit and write and it, you know, and then it's all...whatever it is [laughs].
Thomas: What can we expect tonight? Only DTP material or other material as well?
Devin: No, also other material. Not Strapping, but older material as well. There are lots of records to choose from so it can go in all sorts of directions [laughs].
Thomas: How did you celebrate your 40th birthday earlier this year?
Devin: Hmm, didn't, really. Ate some food, played some guitar and probably watched some TV. Pretty mellow, right.
Thomas: Do you ever think that being 40, touring the world and doing the rock'n'roll thing isn't the right combination?
Devin: I can't quite figure out where I'm at. I find myself in a situation where I'm playing a lot and I have a good life. You know, it has it challenges and its ups and downs like any job. Is it the ideal vocation for me? I don't know, I don't think there's an option - it's what I do! With that, I mean, I enjoy it as much as I can, and when I don't enjoy it, I try not to let it get me down.
Thomas: What would you have been if not a musician?
Devin: Probably not working at all would be ideal [laughs]. Probably construction or something.
Thomas: If we put the present version of Devin Townsend in a room with this Devin Townsend [points to the cover of the 'Sex & Religion' CD by Steve Vai] - what would you say to him? Do's and don't's?
Devin: I don't know. I guess I would say: don't worry about losing your hair. And all that shit will be sorted out later. Do not worry too much about it!
Thomas: I read in the Wikipedia entry on you about your disheartenment after the Steve Vai experience. I thought when I read this that if I had landed that job at that age. I mean, what's the problem!?
Devin: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, it depends how you're wired, right. I'm certainly not based in music because of the acquisition of personal power or whatever. I find that music is something I've fallen into more than anything else. And in the times when I felt that it was in my best interest for me to move away from it, I always ended up coming back, and it wasn't as much a decision as a compulsion - I had to come back.
So, my disheartenment was almost as big a gift as anything because it allowed me to see the limitations of the music industry. The Vai project in itself was difficult for me because I found that Steve and I agree in terms of what concepts are and the things that interest us, but the way we express it is very different. I found that I was very uncomfortable singing Steve's words. When I found myself in the eye of the public it was simply embarrassing for me.
Thomas: One last question: As an old Annihilator fan I have to ask: Do you know Jeff Waters?
Devin: Yeah, I met him for the first time last year, or maybe this year, yeah, this year. I don't like going to shows, and I don't have an interest in meeting the right people or the wrong people or saying the right things to the right people or wrong people or saying the wrong things to the right people or whatever, so it took us that long to run into each other. He came to one of my acoustic shows in Ottawa. I think he's a fabulous guitarist and he seemed like a very nice guy. I mean, I have a couple of Annhilator records, but I very rarely listen to hard rock, but more power to him - he seems like a very pleasant person.
Thomas: That's it from me - thank you!
Devin: Thank you for the interview!
Interviewed by Thomas Nielsen