Devin Townsend ‘Escaping From the Cycle of Madness with Lightwork’

I’m just happy that I don’t hate it!

The great Canadian Devin Townsend is in a jovial and talkative mood when we caught up with him via Zoom from his home in Vancouver recently. His new album, Lightwork, was mostly written and recorded during the dark and disturbing pandemic years, and is intended to be a beacon of light and hope amid the madness, both for himself and his global audience. As a therapeutic piece of art and as a listening entity, it succeeds spectacularly (although, for him, a little tainted by memories of such a bizarre period in history), and the man himself is very pleased with the final product. Albeit in a typically self-deprecating way, of course.

It’s been interesting,” he continues, “through the course of this pandemic, how, maybe a record like this prior to having gone through this, the actualisation of it might have been really basic. Just like ‘yeah, it’s another record’. But the point of this one, almost from its inception, was trying to create something that was a bit of a hopeful vibe from me, and while I was working on it I could escape from the cycle of madness we were having to ingest every day. And to try and maintain that frame of mind, during a fundamentally chaotic period, it was really weird, man.

Also in typical Dev style, while the finished product is superb, the process end to end was far from perpetual smooth sailing. “There were a lot of times I would try to take it in a direction that, after getting almost to the conclusion of that idea, I was like, ‘well that doesn’t work.’ I had to pull back and say I was losing the vibe of it and it was just turning into this abstract chaos. By the time it was done, I was just so relieved that I was okay with it. That’s not a ringing endorsement, I guess (laughs), but it’s my criteria still, so I’ll stick with it.”

Also in typical Townsend fashion, the ambient and pop-heavy stylings of Lightwork are an almost overwhelming contrast to his previous release, 2019’s bombastic, progtastic Empath. For virtually the entirety of his thirty-year career, Townsend has pursued the idea that every new album should be completely different to the one before, and that idea has only expanded in the last decade to a decade and a half or so. However, he is adamant that this is not through planning or contrivance, but purely down to him following where his muse takes him and what is happening in his life at the time.

I don’t plan it at all,” he admits without hesitation, “in fact, it’s a liability when it comes to having to explain it to people. So much of my time I have spent apologising to people for that very reason. The acceleration of differences between each record over the past decade, I think is more indicative of an accelerated rate of change in my personal life over the past 10 years. The music is just a reflection of that, in the same way that it was during City or Alien or Infinity. It’s the same process, it’s exactly the same thing, it’s just that the age of 40 to 50 was really different, I had kids, and then of course you throw in the pandemic and war and all this stuff, and the grist for the mill is just plentiful, it’s everywhere.

I think the job for me is about discerning through these moments of significance and change and what have you, what’s worth writing about. And even further than that, how do you mine those experiences to really get to the root of where you’re at. So that process, I’ve been maybe a little more invested in in the last decade because I just feel like, why are we fuckin’ around, let’s just do this. And no matter what it yields, just get through it, and we’ll see where we’re at.

Townsend is quick to reiterate that, while Lightwork (and in particular, a track like second single ‘Call of the Void‘) is an attempt to be positive and life-affirming during an extreme period in the world’s history, it is not necessarily any kind of concept record based on the Covid years, rather a product of its times in a similar way in which previous albums were.

Yeah, but not in the sense where it’s a theme record,” he states. “Like, Lightwork and The Puzzle were written during the pandemic, they happened during the pandemic in the same way that City happened after Vai, and ‘Infinity’ happened after acid or whatever (laughs), all those things were just reactions to what was going on. So it’s inevitable, if I’m writing during a period of such personal and civil discourse, the world’s going crazy essentially, that it’s going to be a reflection of how that’s affected me.

So, essentially, making those two pandemic records became therapy for him during anxiety-inducing times. “I think that what’s worth pointing out for me is that I started ‘Lightwork’ right at the beginning of the pandemic,” he recalls, “with the intention of what it ended up being of trying to create for myself, not necessarily for anybody else, but for myself, something that I can work on that alleviates some of the anxiety. But I found that, you’re only human, and after a certain amount of time it was like, I’m not here, it’s clearly a mess and I had to put it aside and make The Puzzle, and kind of purge that. Because what was starting to interfere with Lightwork was all the chaos that just ended up being Puzzle. It felt really important for me to get that out of the way so I could continue to make something without the creative compulsion pushing it in a direction that made it really odd.

The man has covered such a broad musical territory across the course of his career, from extreme metal to alt-country to ambient/electronic and just about everything in between, it’s actually a little difficult to think of a genre he hasn’t done in the last thirty years. One of the very few styles he hasn’t touched on is rap/hip hop, do you think we’ll ever hear Devin Townsend rap at any stage?

(at this point, he breaks into an impromptu rap)

My name is rapper Dev, and I’m here to say… Everything about me is A-OK (laughs)

I think this also falls under the category of, I don’t plan anything,” he says, “I have no idea. I have never made any conscious decision of, one day I’m going to make a country record, and piss off my label (laughs). That just kind of seemed appropriate at the time, and then Ché (Ché Aimee Dorval, his collaborator on the alt-country release of 2014, Casualties of Cool) and I became buddies and we worked on that, and then that album came out. In fact, the process of following these ideas to conclusion is often as surprising to me as it is to the audience. Which is probably why I spend so much of my time making excuses for things, or apologies for things, prior to them coming out.

When I was 25, I was all about darkness and hate and all that, and I kind of worked through that, in some ways, as a person. It’s not that I don’t have a degree of those things still, but I worked through them in a way that helped me out greatly and made the quality of my life much better.

Interview by Rod Whitfield @Rod_Whitfield

Listen to Lightwork here

devin townsend lightwork album review

Devin Townsend – Lightwork tracklisting

1. Moonpeople
2. Lightworker
3. Equinox
4. Call of the Void
5. Heartbreaker
6. Dimensions
7. Celestial Signals
8. Heavy Burden
9. Vacation
10. Children of God

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