Devin Townsend – ‘Gestating an Empathic Masterpiece’

It’s 9.15pm on a Wednesday.

I’m pacing about my house. ‘Slightly anxious’ would be an understatement of how I’m feeling right now. I’m nervous as hell. After all, it’s not every day you get to speak to someone you’ve been a fan of since he released Alien as Strapping Young Lad back in 2005.

I am, of course, talking about the almighty Devin Townsend, whose new album, Empath, has finally been released to much anticipation and acclaim (our perfect score review here). From all accounts, fans have been blown away by what’s being hailed as a significant milestone of Devin’s career. Getting to this point, of course, hasn’t exactly been an easy path. It involved dissolving The Devin Townsend Project, his long-time band that has seen success both on the road, but also through seven ground-breaking albums and multiple live releases, including the memorable Retinal Circus, that showcased Dev’s entire back catalogue (including a few SYL tracks.)

It was an outfit that was doing modestly well and could have continued as a comfortable living for both Devin and his fellow band members for a long time to come.

But Dev had an itch. A need to explore his creative expression more deeply. And this required hitting that big ol’ reset button, and he set about rebuilding a new bank of musicians to work with, and the result is an album that takes you on a journey through multiple stylings, and at the end of it leaves you with a jaw-dropping experience that may not be done by anyone else for a long time to come.

I finally sit down in front of my laptop and stare at Skype with anticipation. After a bit, it finally beeps at me. A big smiley emoji graces the screen. Followed shortly by “That’s a shitty emoji,” and I laugh. That’s the other thing that resonates with me about Mr Devin Townsend – his sense of humour.

I take a deep breath, Skype rings, and I hit the green button. Here we go.

Hi Dev, congratulations on the album!

Thank you!

So, where did the first little seeds of Empath first originate?

I’d say it was good year and a half prior to DTP ending – I mean I tend to have these long term project ideas that I pick away at, and then by the time it gets completed it seems like perhaps it was  something that happened quickly when in actual fact it might have been going on for 5 years prior. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this (other) project of mine called ‘The Moth’ now for just as long as I have been thinking about Empath, perhaps longer, but we’re probably not going to see that one for another 5 years, right?

So, these ideas just kind of slowly gestate and then one day come to light.

What I like most about Empath is it’s clear that you weren’t afraid to experiment with new ideas and different styles. How did you manage to let go of any fears and step outside of that comfort zone?

I think you just have to give up! (laughs) As depressing as that sounds, I think there’s really something to be said for getting older in that sense. Because there’s things happening, you know – your body changes, your relationships change…you know, people in your life come and go, and there’s only a certain amount of that you can have energy for. And I do find, as I get older, I have less energy, just full stop.

So, if I’m going to utilise that energy somewhere, it’s going to be for the things that are essential. And I guess I started recognizing that a lot of the sort of…parameters that I imposed on myself creatively were not essential, but more based on maybe insecurity or something, and I just got to the point where I was like ‘man, I don’t have energy to give a shit about that, so I’m not going to!’ (laughs)

You make a point in the documentary videos (on YouTube) of saying you’re trying to not put yourself into a particular style or genre, and on Empath there is a varying amount of styles – I made the joke in my review that one track sounds like a score for a Marvel movie, but there’s also a bit of bluegrass in there, some narrative passages, along with blistering metal. You could almost say that Empath is a combination of what Devin Townsend has been up to this point.

Well I think that was the intention, honestly. I think that you get to a certain point in your career, if you’ve been doing it for as long as I have, where in order to progress, what it requires is some sober analysis of where you been, and I think that Empath acts as an album that almost is an observation that I’ve made of where I’ve been musically and what I’ve done creatively. And by actualising all these things one more time, I’m able to assess my relationship with each one of them, and I think that it allows me as a result of that to maybe move forward.

I think in the past I have been afraid of certain things that were within my creative personality or within my creative frame of mind. And I think that fear prevented me from really exploring what my potential is, and so getting back into the heavy stuff, getting back into the orchestral stuff, getting back into all these things that maybe I had disallowed myself from participating in acts as an interesting bridge, I think.

I like to explain like if you’re on a creative path, Empath is like there as an avalanche that was blocking the path. And so, you have to take a pickaxe and just pound through the shit and then get to the other side and I think that’s where I’m at.

What do you feel were the biggest challenges in the production of this album?

(Dev laughs) Oh, god…as anybody who’s listening to it would probably ascertain, it was a challenging production!

However, you know, it’s like Deconstruction or any of these things – if you take it in small pieces, and keep your eye on your objective, I think it’s doable, but it also requires just patience and the willingness to not rush it. And then, by the time it was finished and I put it all in one place, the combination of all these little pieces that you spent days or months on coming together in one place is really overwhelming because it sounds like this continual onslaught of information – which it is but it also wasn’t all done at one time you know what I mean? The mix was the most difficult, for sure.

Oh, that was my next question, how did you approach the mix? Similar to how you’ve done it in the past, or was there a new method?

Yeah, there was a lot of things that I’ve learned. I did a mix of it in the UK with Nolly (Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood, ex-Periphery bassist and producer) and, although it was cool, it wasn’t what it needed to be. So, I took it home and mixed it myself, but I had to rearrange the studio and get new speakers, and really sort of confront the fact that I’ve always thought I was just kind of shit at mixing. I think maybe the hardest part of the mix is just sort of getting over your own insecurities and realising that no one is going to be able to mix this stuff in the way that I am – you might be able to get some help on the low end of the kick drum or where the bass sits in relationship to the toms, or the more technical things. But in terms of getting the vibe right – no one’s going to be able to do this other than I. So, I just kinda had to get over the insecurity and just pound through it, and that’s what I did.

Watching the documentary videos, I noticed you tended to take a very solitary approach initially to the writing. How hard was it when the time came to start getting other people involved?  

Well, I don’t know if it was difficult, in a sense. I think the difficulties always lie in the social part of it for me, because typically I’ve been very guilty of, sort of, people pleasing in my life and in my career, and that has led me to sometimes making decisions creatively or business wise that weren’t right for me. But I was trying to keep other people happy and what have you, and I think part of the process of Empath that made it work creatively was my willingness to view that tendency and see if I could alter its course in some way. So, suddenly you start throwing other human beings into the mix, and then you compound that social obligation with the fact that creatively there’s this part of me that just like ‘I don’t want to please people anymore.’

I don’t want to be unkind to people, I don’t want to be rude to people, but I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I’m compromising what it is I want too creatively for the sake of other people’s feelings or what have you. And so that became interesting (laughs) to say the least – but again I think I’m what I learned from that is most people are much more willing to accept your truth if it’s coming from a place of not being mean spirited than I had anticipated so it was a bit of learning there as well.

I’ve found that people do their best work when they are just honest.

Yeah, but I mean there’s also a fine line between being honest and honesty Tourette’s (laughs) you know what I mean? Where you’re just kind of barking out what you perceive to be your truth without any sort of recognition of how that’s going to affect other people, and I think that the cross to bear that I had was is trying to find where that line was and a lot of what I recognise during this process is your intuition is going to tell you what is it you need and learning to trust your intuition is a skill set, I don’t think it’s something that is inherent in our personalities specifically in the world that we live in, you know, it kind of gets taught out of us, or beaten out of us in a certain way.

So, once I realise that what I’m saying is my truth and it’s not coming from a place of trying to be cruel to others or to be disrespectful of others, it became a lot easier to do, but there’s a bit of massaging that came with that.

You’ll be heading back down to Australia soon, what can we expect from a touring standpoint?

Well, there’ll be two types types of touring I’m going to do. First off, I’ve been doing these acoustic shows which work because it allows me to strip my material back to its most basic form. I think it kind of proves that even without the orchestras, backing tracks, choirs and all that stuff – it’s still me, it’s still who I am.

And by doing the acoustic shows as well it bides me time to put together the next band, and then the next tour that I’ll do down in Australia – I’ll probably do a bunch of the acoustic runs – and then the actual tour that I’ll do will be with a whole new group of people that are actually from a whole different scene in a lot of ways and it will be a combination of Empath, back catalogue – a lot of things.

But we’re starting with the acoustic runs and I think it should be announced there pretty quick.

Let’s talk guitars (because I’m a guitarist as well,) are you still using the ‘Open C’ tuning as your main tuning, or have you been experimenting with different ones?

(Dev has been using a lower tuning of open C for most of his career, instead of the standard E.)

Well I’ve experimented through my career with different tunings – sometimes standard, sometimes some weird alternate tuning, where I dropped my guitar and then pick it up and realise that it’s in a tuning that the song lies in. But typically, open C is where I’m at – sometimes it’ll be open B which is a similar sort of strategy on the fretboard, but open C is basically where I’ve always been at and I continue to be for this record for sure.

Maybe you could help with something – I’ve been finding my playing style has been in a bit of a rut lately, where everything I’m coming up with is in a bit of a box (basically, everything I’m writing sounds like Green Day.) Do you ever come across a similar scenario yourself, and any tips on how to break out of that creative rut?

That’s a hard thing to answer because when I get stuck in a rut, I just end up sounding like my other records, you know what I mean? To get out of the rut…I think it’s just a matter of time, because I don’t think there’s any sure fire way to change your trajectory. I think you just got to allow your life to proceed in ways that it then gives you more information, and that information is where the chords and the ideas lie.

I mean there’s lots of synthetic ways that people tend to try and get out of their own head, like drugs or booze, or social things that are toxic or what have you, but for me I feel that in life I’m trying to become less surrounded by drama rather than more, and sometimes what that leads me too is I’m just like ‘wow I got nothing now.’ And I think that’s okay – if all that’s coming out of you is Green Day riffs, then maybe it’s time to go to the beach, as opposed to beating yourself over the head for not writing a hit.

I think my other thing at the moment is I’d like to get back into a band this year, rather than just playing guitar by myself.

Yeah and I think that’s important too, because I think what gets lost a lot of the times is the reason why we start doing this. I know for myself because it’s so wrapped up in my career, in my identity, in all this there is a certain part of me the loses the plot sometimes. And you think ‘OK well the reason I’m writing is so people like me, or so it’s got something I can play live, or something like this.

And then you give your head a shake and you’re like ‘no, the reason I write is because I’m a musician and I really like music,’ and I think that sometimes that may lead us to things that aren’t reinventing the wheel, but ultimately if it makes us feel good then I think that’s reason enough.

Thanks for the advice Dev – and thank you for the chat!

Thanks, my friend – have a great day!

Interview By – Simon Valentine (@SimonValentine1)

Empath is out now via Inside Out Music. Grab a copy here

devin townsend - empath

Devin Townsend – Empath tracklisting:

1. Castaway
2. Genesis
3. Spirits Will Collide
4. Evermore
5. Sprite
6. Hear Me
7. Why
8. Borderlands
9. Requiem
10. Singularity Part 1 – Adrift
11. Singularity Part 2 – I Am I
12. Singularity Part 3 – There Be Monsters
13. Singularity Part 4 – Curious Gods
14. Singularity Part 5 – Silicon Scientists
15. Singularity Part 6 – Here Comes The Sun

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  1. Devin Townsend says he has two very different Australian Tours on the way… – Wall Of Sound

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