Devin Townsend

by Greg Prato

That Devin Townsend has always been one busy gentleman - as evidenced by his steady stream of releases since the early-mid '90s. First breaking in as the singer of Steve Vai's short-lived "VAI" project (1993's Sex & Religion), it wasn't until Mr. Townsend headed out on his own, as the leader of extreme-prog-metallists Strapping Young Lad, that headbangers first became aware of this Vancouver native's talents. He's a fine singer/screamer, and can riff with the best of them on the six-string.

Once Townsend had his fill of being a Strapping Young Lad, he headed out as a solo artist, fronting the Devin Townsend Band, the Devin Townsend Project, and issuing solo albums which run the stylistic gamut from ambient to hook-heavy hard rock, to his trusty old prog-metal.

Townsend opened up in this interview, discussing how giving up marijuana changed his songwriting strategy. He also explained his Battlestar Galactica connection, and told us just how dangerous a chap by the name of "Ziltoid" is.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): From what I understand, you're currently working on a few projects, Casualties of Cool and Z2, the sequel to Ziltoid, right?

Devin Townsend: That's correct. Yeah.

Songfacts: So if you could just maybe talk a little bit about those two projects and what people can expect from them, and also when you think they'll be out.

Devin: Yeah. Casualties is something I've been working on slowly for about three years now. There's always so much going on in my world musically and creatively that I enjoy a great deal. But there are also a lot of parameters on what I do, just by nature of having to represent it live, or the expectation of what I do versus the prior record, or any number of things. So Casualties is this project that I've been working on relatively quietly and just for myself, and it's the first time I've actually made a record for myself in 20 some odd years. It's probably the first one.

It's following up the last record that we did, which was really bombastic and with a commercial slant. Casualties is something that's really important to me to represent the fact that I still love music and I still am doing this for myself, which is also rare at the stage that I'm at.

But also, there's been no pressure on it. No one's been asking for it. No one's been funding it. It's just been this thing. I guess the best way to describe it would be this really quiet, really dark, really folky sort of outer space Johnny Cash vibe. And there's a lady singing on it, a friend of mine from Vancouver who's got this unbelievably detached sort of bluesy voice. And the drummer on it is this Swedish cat named Morgan Ågren, who had played with Fredrik Thordendal and Zappa and a bunch of things. So his technical prowess is just so far above and beyond what this type of music requires that what he's managed to come up with is just really, really creative.

I leave on Sunday to go to Sweden to mix it, and then it's finished. I don't know how and when it will be coming out, but to have done it has just been a real pleasure for me on a bunch of levels.

And then Z2, the Ziltoid sequel, if you will, is a real long term project - what I've been plotting in some way or another for many years. Because the last record we did, Epicloud, did OK for us, it's important for me to make sure that everything about the Ziltoid project is thought out. So currently we've got it in two ways before the record comes out, one of which is a radio show. I've got 42 episodes of this Ziltoid radio thing, that I start tracking on Sunday for Team Rock Radio over in the UK. It's an hour-long crazy thing that could potentially be really cool. And then there's Ziltoid TV, which is something that I've been working for about a year now. Ziltoid TV has this puppet that has caused me an immense amount of money to make, but he's this three-person operated animatronic alien that essentially serves as this talk show host for guests and musicians. It's this variety show thing that I'm making three pilots for that will hopefully preface the record.

The record comes out in about a year and a half. That's interesting, in my opinion: a multimedia project that is rooted in heavy metal, but also a real campy trip. Then we plan to take it live. It's pretty epic, right?

Songfacts: And then also I'd like to ask you some questions about songwriting. So just as far as when you approach songwriting, is there any set formula that you ever follow?

Devin: I guess it changes, depending on the circumstance. Years ago when I used to do drugs and drink and shit it would be a completely different process. Now I've been sober for so long, I have kids and all that, it's much different.

At that time it used to be I'd have five or six bong hits and a cup of coffee in the morning and sit on the stairs until something came to me. But as soon as I quit smoking weed, that all changed. That process - just poking around on the guitar until something inspired me - no longer worked at all for me.

Now it tends to happen in a bunch of different ways. I've got amps set up all through my world, whether we're on tour or at my place or jam spots. And just by having a guitar in my hands, if I do have an idea, I pretty much instantly document it and if it's of any value, I can recognize that pretty quickly as to whether or not it's going to go in a direction that is going to be worthy.

And if I do recognize that, I've got Pro Tools set up with a template, and that template allows me to have everything instantly ready. It's a timeline and EZdrummer, bunch of virtual instruments, all the guitar tracks already set up, bass tracks already set up, vocal tracks already ready, guitars, I make sure they're in tune, bass, make sure it's in tune. And then I just go and cut it and move it and then experiment by listening to it and really block out a structure.

If it becomes something immediately that I'm inspired by, I try to finish it on the spot and then document it for when something like that is required. Then I'll open up that file, say, under "heavy" or "fast" or "mellow," and go through those moments and see which ones are applicable.

Songfacts: Could you give an example of a song that was very easy to write and then a song that was very difficult to complete?

Devin: An easy song would have been... I don't even remember, there's 20 some odd records and when I try and think of any of them I draw a blank. An easy song was "Vampira." A difficult song... none of them were necessarily difficult, they just maybe take longer than the others. "Solar Winds" took me a fair amount of time, but it's not because it was difficult, but just because I had an intro kicking around that just didn't have a home. Then when that record came in, I was like, "Oh, right, right, right, I've got that thing from years ago." And then I started piecing it together. So that took years.

Songfacts: With the longer pieces of music that you write, do you usually write those just in one sitting or is it something that you have to work on for a while and piece together?

Devin: Usually when I'm sitting, I find that if I postpone anything, specifically longer pieces of music, it just doesn't gel. It turns into just a bunch of different songs that end up being separated. I often think that if I could just slow down, things would turn out better or more articulate or what have you. But when I do slow down, I just lose the interest in it. So if I have an idea and it seems to want to be long, I just try and commit to at least the structure, and then decorate it as time goes on. But if I don't nail that structure in a fairly short period of time, then it's not a song, it's just a bunch of parts.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some vocalists that you admire?

Devin: Vocalists I admire... let me think. That's a hard question actually, because I've never really been a huge fan of vocalists individually. Faith No More - you really can't beat Mike Patton for most things. When I was younger I really liked Perry Farrell and Chris Cornell. Those artists from the late '80s, early '90s, that was where I got my bearings technique-wise.

But if I was really to put my finger on what inspires me most about vocalists, it's always women. I love the sound of a female voice. I think it stems back from Enya; my balls were just dropping as a 13 year old and I fell in love with Enya. I guess in that sense I've been attracted to beautiful-sounding voices rather than technically proficient ones.

I listen to a lot of Massive Attack lately and it's nice, they've got a bunch of variations in terms of the vocals. But the textures of that really make sense to me.

Songfacts: The song "Awake," what are your memories of writing it and what is the song about lyrically?

Devin: "Awake" was a dream. I often go through periods where songs appear in dreams and scenarios appear in dreams, and I wake up in the middle of the night sort of humming the melody and then recognize it: "Oh, wow, that's something that is new." And if I'm prepared enough and aware enough, I can scramble out of bed and jot it down. A fair amount from my back catalogue that is written in that sense, and "Awake" was one of them. That whole rhythm was from this dream, and I just woke up singing the melody. I mumbled it into my iPhone and emailed it to myself and fell back asleep. When I woke up and listened to the email, I was like, "Oh, that's actually not that bad." So I wrote that one down.

Lyrically, it was about that period of time where my process was changing from writing like a stoner to writing like a dad. The slant I was trying to go for lyrically was about taking your head out of the smog that it had been in for a certain period of time and recognizing what could potentially be there.

As Townsend states below, he is an admirer of the short-lived sci-fi television series, Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 1979-1980 (and was similar stylistically and thematically to the recently released Star Wars, as well as the older Star Trek). And as Star Wars had its own catch phrase ("May the force be with you"), so did Battlestar Galactica ("By your command"), the latter of which was a phrase often uttered by evil robot soldiers, called Cylons. Hence, the title of one of Townsend's top tunes.
Songfacts: And what about the song "By Your Command."

Devin: "By Your Command" is Ziltoid stuff. The "by your command" title is a reference to Battlestar Galactica, which I was into as a kid. The Ziltoid character is the alien thing, so there's that sort of outer space thing that seemed to make sense. But really it was a reference back to drugs, and that whole record was a reference to drugs in some sense - that you are unconsciously motivated to go in directions that are either contrary to your nature or maybe not the most accurate representation of where your conscious mind is. Sort of being on autopilot or being a channel to things that ultimately are going to cause you difficulty.

So "By Your Command" had that as an undercurrent, but on the surface it was the introduction to this ridiculous story that the Ziltoid record actually was.

After exiting VAI, Devin Townsend formed his own group in which he called all the shots: Strapping Young Lad. Perhaps to distance himself from his previous project, SYL was much heavier sonically, while also mixing in elements of prog, to boot. The band (which had numerous members coming and going throughout their career) issued a total of five albums from 1995-2006, including such underground metal favorites as 1997's City and 2003's self-titled effort. It was also during his "SYL era" that Townsend boldly modeled a hairstyle which became his trademark for a while - the skullet (very little hair on top, lots of hair on the side and back).
Songfacts: And what about the song "Love?" by Strapping Young Lad?

Devin: I was terrified of having kids at that point, and I wanted to make a statement. Speaking of being high, I was messed up for that record. So I think there was a part of me that was just so afraid of committing to anything that put me in a position of having to confront parts of my nature that I was uncomfortable with, that my initial reaction to anything like that was just hostility. So "Love?" was meant as an ironic examination of what it meant to be responsible.

Songfacts: From what I understand you're going to appear on recordings for Shelter Dogs, a project which features a guitarist you worked with previously, Mark Cimino.

Devin: Yeah. God, I've known Mark for almost longer than anybody in my life. We used to live together in LA when I was doing the Steve Vai thing and he was working for Steve. LA is just so riddled with douchbaggery... when I first got off the plane, I was 19 years old, and the first guy I met was Marc, and he's from Long Island. I was just like, "Okay, this guy's not a douchbag, he's straight up." So we had had a really good relationship for a long time because we can both trust each other to give each other the truth. And Marc, for as long as I've known him, has always been the guy that helped everybody else - he was always a liaison between musicians.

Everybody knows Marc. You have some people that seek the attention of people who have fame because of what they can do for you, but people are drawn to Mark because he doesn't spend a whole lot of time pandering to anybody, regardless of who you are. So he's a real dude.

So he and I had fallen out of contact for about a decade after LA and we both were regrouping from that. Then we just rolled back into each other's life at some point back in maybe 2007. It's like any relationship you go through trying to figure out each other and where you've gone in life until you recognize it and you say, "Oh, it's the same person that I remember. And this person's really valuable in my life." But also I remember thinking to myself, "Why hasn't he made any music?" This is a guy that has all the experiences of anybody who's been doing this for as long as the rest of us. He's got all the gear in the world, he's got all these contacts, and he's got a head full of great songs - it's just he hasn't had the opportunity for some reason to put it down.

So I had him come out and play guitar on my record Addicted, and it kind of thrust him into actually being involved with the musical end of it as opposed to just being a liaison. And how he coped with it was exactly how I expected he would. Everybody thought he was a great dude and he did a great job and he played really well and he was a pleasure to be around. So when it was done and he was leaving Vancouver, I was like, "You've got to put some of your songs down, because they're great, man. You don't need to be a liaison anymore. You're in your mid 40s, commit to some of this."

So we started writing and then when he was sending me this stuff and I'm thinking to myself that this is really good, this is something I couldn't actually write because it just comes from a perspective I don't have. Most of what I do is just such a neurotic counterpart to my weirdo existence that it's not just typical music, it's just this thing. But when Mark was writing it, it was just like, "Wow, this is actually really good stuff." And it's surprising to me how concise and controlled it is.

So he put together a studio, then anywhere I could help he started sending me demos. I would drop a couple of vocals or play some bass on it, which I love. I love playing bass. And then before I knew it he had a studio. Then all of a sudden Brooks [Wackerman, drummer] got involved and then Danny [Cooksey, singer] got involved and then Mike Clink got involved.

He's so passionate about animals and he was able to put that into his project, as well. I'm just really proud of him, and I hope that other people like it, because I think there are certain characters in the world, let alone the scene, that given half a chance they could really do some good things and I think Marc's one of them.

Songfacts: You mentioned working with Steve Vai earlier in your career. What are your thoughts on the album Sex and Religion when you hear it today and what are some memories and thoughts on that era of your career?

Devin: Well, I can't listen to it, to be honest. It's a good situation I'm in with Steve now. He just contributed to this DVD of mine, The Retinal Circus, and he sort of MC'd this strange project that I've just finished. So typical aspects of our relationship are really solid. He's become a friend and he's been so supportive.

That project, the whole Sex and Religion thing, I was young and pissed off and feisty and it wasn't what I felt was the best lyrical thing for me to represent at that point in my life, so I found it very difficult. To this day I can't really listen to it.

However, technically, I think the record's very good and I think he's done some really, really great stuff in his life and his career. It's just Sex and Religion for me is a difficult thing to get behind, not because of the quality, but just because of my own interactions with it. I'm still kind of working that out, if you know what I mean.

Songfacts: And the last question I have is would you say Ziltoid is the type of gentleman one should invite over for coffee and cake?

Devin: Well, not if you're a woman. [Laughing] Yeah, I mean, Ziltoid is, as an entity, supposed to be by nature evil, but with a conscience. So his desire to do horrible things is often thwarted by some sort of inner conflict that he has.

November 5, 2013. Devin's website is hevydevy.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Jeremy from Arizona!His music is inspirational and it was great to read a little about his past & present songwriting process.
  • Peter from United States I feel privileged to read an interview from someone of David Townsend's magnitude on the internet. Thank you.
  • Jessie from AustraliaGreat interview guys, gave a good insight to how he works his magic and all sorts of other aspects of his career!
see more comments

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