Published Nov 17, 2009Upon first glance, the new name Devin Townsend Project seems like a redundant, or even sly, move, just a rebranding of the man and his creative genius/insanity. But listening to Addicted, it's clear that the name is descriptive, a clue to figuring this project out. The changing cast are part of the formula, and Addicted shakes up the mix introduced by the more restrained Ki, released earlier this year, bringing in some familiar sidekicks, as well as Anneke van Giersbergen (Agua De Annique, ex-the Gathering) to share the mic. Things start out powerfully upbeat, anchored in a heavy momentum, and though the catchy liveliness shifts partway through to a steady swell, the songs follow the same current of vitality. Addicted shoots off jolts of energy and attitude, pulling back just enough to catch a breath before surging forward once again. At one level, the record is a retrospective, pillaging sounds and textures in a celebration of Townsend's rich back catalogue. Electro and prog-ish eccentricities, tank-like, or groove-based, riffs and layers of vocal lines both screamed and sung are all intertwined in oft-familiar ways. But the celebration is also about the vibrantly new and in the end, Addicted is Devin Townsend revived, invigorating and utterly convincing.
At least one press release I've read claims that you "mysteriously disappeared off the grid after 2005." Is that how you would characterize the last few years: "off the grid"?
In a certain way. The last three years have been definitely punctuated by some pretty big moments of personal change. I'm 37 years old, to start with. With Strapping Young Lad, I was in that band for 12 to 13 years. The process ― to make a long story longer ― the process that I have engaged in since I started writing music was a direct reflection of whatever emotional state I find myself in, and that's not ever been a conscious decision, it's just... For example, if I'm upset about something and the guitar's near, that's usually what ends up being filtered into the output for that moment. Strapping Young Lad were no different. I was in my early 20s and a lot of the emotional changes that folks tend to go through in their early 20s were personified for me in the music. And I think what ultimately led to whatever success Strapping Young Lad had was that kind of sense of honesty about "okay, this is truly what I'm feeling at this point," regardless of whether or not it's current or sellable. It's just "this is where I'm at." The flipside of that kind of cathartic musical process is that the end result is ultimately to better yourself in some way, to resolve these issues, as opposed to kind of flounder in them. And so, over the course of 12 to 13 years of Strapping Young Lad, five records, DVDs, etc., I resolved a lot of what it meant to be upset about those things I was upset about. Granted, a lot of that just came with age, but regardless, it resolved itself, so, mission accomplished. During the time with Strapping Yound Lad, towards the end of it, what it took to maintain that kind of emotional intensity past the age where it was truly a relevant emotion to me, I found that I was smokin' a lot of weed, essentially, drinkin' a lot of booze, trying to reconnect with those kind of senses of angst or fear or whatever. And what the initial sentiment of Strapping Young Lad was, which was a real kind of cathartic middle finger to everything, became this paranoid vision. I think that if you're predisposed to mental illness of any sort, and you start incorporating marijuana, specifically, a lot of people just end up in paranoia. There's the rhetoric about it not being dangerous, and coming from Vancouver, that's definitely something that's reinforced over and over. But the proof is in the pudding and I ended up kind of engaging in artistic pursuits that were too metaphoric and ultimately paranoid. So, after being together with my wife for 15 years or whatever, we had a baby. I never wanted to have a baby. I mean, the idea of it was just horrifying to me. So, here I am at 36 years old and I had a baby. And I quit smoking weed, and I quit drinking, and I quit the band, and I cut my hair off, and I moved. And just, like, tons of things that went into someone who generally over-thinks every situation having to deal with a lot of stuff that I never thought I'd have to deal with. And the result of that ended up being two years of me doing very little music, because my creative process was so intrinsically tied to the routine of weed, and touring, and that kind of paranoid world that I was engaging in, unknowingly, I think, at the time. But without it, I was just left with, "Well, maybe I'm just not that good. Maybe I'm more suited to lifting things for a living than I am to screaming about these mystical problems that apparently everybody else in the world has too." Those two years I spent producing bands; I did a bunch of bands, and putting together studios, and accumulating gear, and just coming to terms with certain things about sobriety more than anything else. And then all of a sudden I realized that a lot of the negative things, a lot of the paranoia and a lot of the fears that I had were just manifested in terms of my fear of myself. You know, uncomfortable truths that other things in life make you start thinking about yourself. And then I decided to start writing again. And the process that I was writing with sober, it was this outpouring, this everything. I no longer censored myself in terms of, like, "now I'm writing something heavy, now I'm writing something quiet, now I'm writing something poppy." I just wrote. And by the end of that period I found I had about 50 or 60 songs, and I decided to document that period of personal change with these four records, and here's record two, and now I will take a breath.
As you said, this latest record, Addicted, is the second entry for the project, and you were writing all this music in the same period, but not by album?
What I kind of did was I'd write one style until I got sick of that and then the reaction of me being bored of that particular process ended up being something else, and that just kept going in circles. Like, I'd write something quiet and kind of haunted-sounding, and then I'd get bored of that fear and then write something really commercial, for Addicted. And then I'd get kind of tired of the real blatant overtones ― you know, it's pretty obvious music ― so I'd write something really complicated for the third record, Deconstruction, and then listen back to that and just get offended by my own pretence, and then write something that was really folky. And then it ended up that ― of course, there's a lot of shrapnel, there's a lot of really bad songs ― but there were four solid records of good material that were distinctly in four areas. So I just kind of went with it.
Did you envision these separate albums as you were writing or was that something that came after the fact?
The process, I'm starting to realize, is different from a lot of musicians, for me. I mean, there's a lot of musicians that have the exact same process and I ended up being close friends with a lot of them that I have found, because we kind of commiserate with each other in that way. But I don't think about it. What happens, for me, is an idea, or a concept, or a colour, or a visual or something comes into my head and just rolls around and eventually, whatever's going on in my life attaches some sort of melody to it. I think that notes ― they distinctly relate to emotions, right? So, if someone died in my family, for example, there were images, a tree or a picture, and then a certain chord. And then eventually the records just start building themselves, and you're like, "okay, well, the record has got something to do with trees, and it's based on an acoustic thing, and there's a lot of echo, and I don't know what the name of it is yet, but it's something that starts with P." And, eventually, by the end of it, it's like, "well, I've got this record and it goes like this and it looks like this and it's called this." And I kind of put it out there, much to the chagrin of a lot of the music listeners, or so-called fan base, or even on the far end of it, the actual music industry itself, because it's like, "okay, what are we gonna do with this?" Addicted is this really kind of up-tempo, dance-y, optimistic heavy record. And the next one that comes out in May is like a kind of symphony, and then the last one's like a folk record. It's hard to maintain any sense of consistency, but at the same time, I make a modest living, and I'm very happy doing what I do, and ultimately what I want to do in the future probably incorporates all of this, so perhaps by making it known that it's all within me it will kind of soften the blow for anybody who does care when I start doing things that are different.
Where is the consistency then, besides it being all you? Is there something beyond that?
It's honest. I mean, I don't know what else to say; I've got a good grasp over theory. I've got a good grasp over my instrument. I can sing. I can produce. I can get a decent kick sound. So my tools are there, and everything I do is because I want to do it and it means something to me. And maybe that's the only consistency, other than I tend to use ninth chords a lot, I use the Lydian mode, and my voice always sounds like me.
There are two albums out right now from this four-part series. What's the connection, and what sets them apart?
Well, the four records are kind of a chronological exposé, I guess, of what that period of personal growth involved. So on the surface, they're four individual records that don't have much to do with each other, but there's this kind of overriding theme and story that to me defines why these four records exist, that they all play a role in. And you don't need to really know the story in order to participate in each record, because I also find that concept albums are horrifyingly pretentious, and the idea of the musicals from the '70s; I mean, sure, I loved them when I was eight, but I see them now and they make my skin crawl. So I think that, on the surface what I tried to do was make each one of them just a record. When you look at the process, Ki, the first record, the character ― even though obviously it's me; I'm trying to kind of objectify it a bit ― the character's unsure about whether or not he wants to pursue this muse, for lack of a better word, and there's the trepidation that comes with that. It's like, you've known in the past that you've been led in these directions by your addictions, or your fears, or your guilt, which have ultimately led you to places that are uncomfortable and toxic. Ki is supposed to be this tense sort of record, where it's almost like you're drivin' with the brakes on, unwilling to allow yourself to go to these places because you're afraid of how your reactions will be. In the past, there have been certain ways that have not been productive. So at end of Ki there's a song called "Ki" where the character almost has an epiphany and he's just like, "You know, you've got to forgive yourself. You've got to get over this. You're getting older and you can't change the past." And you're accountable for everything that you've done, of course, but at the same time, there's also this kind of addiction to guilt that comes into it where you're like, "oh, I'm a bad person, oh, I'll never be able to, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." And in a way, that's a way to keep yourself down. So the epiphany at the end of Ki is almost like the character is just "Well, fuck. I'm a decent person, and I'm a musician and of course I've made mistakes. I'm a person. I'm not anything else. I'm a human. Humans make mistakes." The second record, Addicted, is almost like this euphoria that comes with realizing that you can forgive yourself for some horrible things. And the nature of addiction is like a disease of the ego more than anything else. It's not drugs or alcohol, specifically. It's like you're so intent on feeling better, to the behest of everything else in your life ― your relationships, your music, your family ― everything comes second to feeling good. And again, it's like a real selfish disease. The character realizes that addiction goes beyond alcohol and drugs and sex, down to pain and guilt and fear and music and the internet and, you know, whatever: straight teeth. And it's like a real load is lifted off the character when he decides to have some fun. You know, like what connects humans in a lot of ways, right? Well, there are females and there are males. So there's a girl vocalist and a boy vocalist. And there's that sense that rhythm is something that unites humans in some way. And again, it's a metaphor; I'm not saying that this record is going to unite anybody. It's just a metaphor. The next record, it's called Deconstruction. And after the character has realized that perhaps he is capable of forgiving himself then he has to go and face himself in a lot of ways. And the devil, in a metaphoric way, 'cause I'm not a religious dude, the devil is you. You are your own devil. And so he has to kind of come to terms with the fact that a lot of the fear and the chaos and all the heavy shit that has happened in the past is just because he's been unwilling to face parts of himself. And then he does, and there's a twist at the at the end of Deconstruction where the ultimate nature of reality becomes this futile thing, and basically the only thing that's important is having a good time, hanging out with your buddies, having good relationships with people, and eating some good food. So the last record is a folk record where he's just chilling.
Would you say there's a retrospective quality to what you're doing across these four albums, especially with the sounds on Addicted and the music you've made in the past?
Absolutely, very consciously, actually. Ki, the first record, was very different from anything I've done. And refreshingly so, for me. But, of course, the people that have been kind enough to support the music all this time, if you throw a curveball at them that's so dramatic, a lot of times you're kind of shooting yourself in the foot, not only from a marketing perspective but from an artistic perspective. You've got to be able to not ― you can't distance yourself so completely from what made you. It's easier in a way than finding moderation. Abstinence is easier than moderation because in order to be moderate you got to know yourself, you got to know your limits. But to be abstinent is cut and dried; it's like, "well, I'm never going to do that again." So with Addicted, very consciously I was like, "well, what are the elements of what I've done in the past that I have enjoyed doing and that have defined me in a lot of ways? Well, there's a certain guitar sound, certain vocal things that I do, certain layering things that I do." And so, in a lot of ways, my throwback has been from a production standpoint more so than a musical standpoint, because I could take, for example, some of the odd-sounding songs from Ki that are so unlike what I've done in the past and apply the same production techniques I did with Addicted and it would fit very well. So the throwbacks, I think, have a lot more to do with production styles, and I'm very conscious of scaling back on Addicted and Deconstruction, the next record.
You mentioned that it was important to Addicted to have the male and female voices. Why Anneke van Giersbergen, specifically?
The way she came into my life is interesting. I've always had female voices for probably the past eight, nine years on the records. I mean, I love the sound of a female voice. When I was a kid I had like four copies of Watermark by Enya. I just love that sound. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, as a fan of music, it's a sound that I'm never going to be able to achieve. It's a healthy respect for it more so than a kitschy addiction to the music. I really enjoy it. And with Addicted ― you know, the nature of the idea behind Addicted and what I discussed, in terms of the concept earlier ― it's a human thing; it's certainly not gender-specific. And, I think, after having a baby, for example, and all these sorts of thing, your view on men and women and what it means to be a man or a woman is different than you may have thought, or at least I may have thought when I was younger. For Addicted, I really wanted to have a strong female voice that sounded feminine. I didn't want it to be like a masculine-sounding female voice just because it's heavy music. I wanted it to be clear and strong but still female. So I had a couple of options for the female vocalist but nothing seemed to be panning out and nothing seemed to be completely appropriate. About two weeks before I started recording the vocals for Addicted, I got an email out of the blue from Anneke and she sent with it an attachment of her band doing a cover of one of my songs, like in Chile or something, and they opened the set with it and it was "Hyperdrive," the song we ended up redoing on Addicted, which was originally done by me on a record called Ziltoid a few years ago. And I've been a fan of Anneke's voice since the early' 90s when we were both signed to Century Media at the same time. Strapping Young Lad and the Gathering were both signed by the same people at the same time. I spent a lot of time listening to her first record with the Gathering, called Mandylion, so I was more than familiar with her voice. And so she said in the mail, "I'm making a record and I'm wondering if you'd like to help me write a couple of songs?" And I was like, "strangely enough, I've got a full record worth of material and I've got a ton of female vocals that I need, so why don't you come to Vancouver?" So she flew into Vancouver kind of on faith because we'd never met each other before and we spent a week collaborating for her record, which is a really cool acoustic pop kind of record, and then she sang on Addicted. I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity and she's a brilliant vocalist. She's got a really bright energy. And she's a great person. She's about the same age as me; she's got a kid. Things sometimes work out right.
What about the other musicians on the record?
What I tried to do with each record in this four-record process is make each one indicative of what the vibe of the music is trying to say. Like for Ki, the first record, I met a drummer who's substantially older than me, but we shared a lot of things in common and he was perfect for that record. For Addicted, the energy is different: fun, kind of light but strong, healthy, that kind of vibe. So I tried to include musicians that I had easy relationships with. The bass player, Brian [Waddell], we went to North Surrey together. We were in grade seven, jamming in my parents' garage together. It's an easy thing for me; he's Brian, I've known him forever. The guitar player is from New York. His name is Mark Cimino. And when I moved to L.A. to do Steve Vai's project in the early '90s, he was my roommate. He was Steve Vai's assistant, at the time. We shared an apartment in L.A., and for a couple of years we were thick as thieves. I left L.A. and he moved back to New York, and life goes on. So I saw him again down in the States last year and it's just one of those things where I was like, "I miss this dude." He's a great guitar player, he's an awesome friend, he's a logical dude, he's smart as fuck. And so, when it came time to do this record, I called him and I said, "dude, this would be a great opportunity for us to hang out again." So he came to Vancouver too. And then the drummer, Ryan [Van Poederooyen], is a Vancouver local. He's played on a bunch of sessions around town, of course, but more than anything he was the drummer for the Devin Townsend Band, which was my kind of ill-fated, soft rock-ish, kinda hard rock-ish, whatever the heck it was band that did very little but were active for five years. Knowing him from that I knew that I could count on him to do the job accurately and be a drummer I didn't have to spend too much time stressing about. He's a great drummer. He's a good friend too.
Why did you decide to use the name Devin Townsend Project for these four albums?
Because the logo looks like an infinity sign and I'm super into that concept. B'doom ching! I don't know. Devin Townsend Band had already been used. Devin Townsend Project seemed to be a good overview because maybe the project itself is about me, as opposed to being a band or something. It's like the project is that period of personal change. So what I choose to do in the future, I may not ― I'm definitely not going to be doing the Devin Townsend Project forever. But for right now it makes the most sense to me, and I didn't think about it too much. (Century Media)