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Backstage with Devin Townsend

Guitarist Devin Townsend reminisces about his extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad and the road ahead, just ahead of the launch of his concert DVD ‘By A Thread’

Tushar Menon Jun 11, 2012
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Devin Townsend Photo: Hannah Thomas

It is hard not to react to Devin Townsend. Whether you discover his music through the brutal and violent industrial metal of Strapping Young Lad’s eponymous third album or its antithesis, the serene Devin Townsend Project album Ghost, or anything in between, the strength of his creative energy is inescapable. The musical polymath from Canada spent a few days in London to release his new live DVD By A Thread and perform a couple of intimate acoustic shows.

It is not just in his music that Townsend is a whirlwind of ideas vying for the light. Even in conversation in a dimly-lit backroom in a small basement club in London, the force of his personality comes through. The conversation started in earnest about his artistic nature, went on through his views on life, money, travelling to Indiaand ultimately ended almost like a synesthete’s Rorschach test, as I rattled off song names and he told me what colour they were. The interview began without my having even asked him a question.

Devin Townsend: I was thinking the other day about what I really want in life. Somebody asked me, ‘What are your goals in life?’ and I said “Quiet, not a lot of people…just peace.” The irony is that I’ve found myself in this profession that is increasingly more people and louder than I would have ever hoped for.

Strapping Young Lad was the epitome of loudness and chaos. You decided to disband Strapping when it was still very popular.

The way I look at it, the world is desperately unhappy. We’re no longer tribes. We’re no longer individuals. We’re a collective of a similar kind of mentality desperately trying to seek validation in a world that denies it. A world filled with people telling us “You have to look like this” or “You have to think like this.” So the same magazines that on one page are saying “Be happy with yourself, you are what you are,” say “Lose 10 pounds in two weeks” when you turn the page. I don’t think the world needs more negativity. And money is so disgusting. With Strapping, it was like, “We’ll give you tonnes of money if you just keep saying all this shit. Keep saying “Fuck everything” and we’ll give you whatever you want. I do this now because I want to do it. I mean, I’m tired and we’re not making enough money to be able to take it to the level that I’d like to or to alleviate some of the stresses at home, but that’s life too.

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That does come across in The New Black. Was that album saying to Strapping what Strapping had been saying to the world?

Absolutely. And that’s why I tried to make The New Black almost a parody. Commitment to me is a huge thing in all walks of life, whether it’s committing to a project or people or finishing all your food. It gets rid of all those options that lead you to stupid decisions. I had committed to five records with Strapping Young Lad and I wasn’t just going to jump ship on that. So I thought, how can I still be Strapping? How can I still be a middle finger while not believing in the things that Strapping stood for in the beginning? And I thought the only solution was to say, “Well fuck that, actually.”

And now, the label is seeing that there is beginning to be a demand for what I do. So they’re all thinking about my next step. So I’m fortunate that, through the machine and all its monetisation, I’ve aligned myself in a direction that I’m comfortable with.

At the By A Thread DVD premiere last night, I overheard someone say “I am a huge Strapping Young Lad fan, but I just cannot get enough of Ghost.” Your audience, by now, is used to your wide musical spectrum, but does it surprise you that you fans of one extreme are able to embrace the other?

I appreciate that. I guess my whole thing is that I’ve got faith in the fact that I’m not alone in my appreciation. To me, there is a lot of similarity between Strapping and Ghost because they’re both extreme. Strapping Young Lad  was a huge part of my life and its fans are taking from Strapping not the brutality, essentially, as its core, but the sensitivity that put me in a place where that was a reaction to my environment. I had found myself with drugs and alcohol and violence, but my nature has never been any of those things. I’ve experimented with all of those things but it’s never been my core. So I think at the time, Strapping Young Lad was a reflection of it. At the time, I was thinking, if I’m more aggressive than everybody, I can purge all of this without any accountability for it, and that it would all stay away because people will be frightened of it. But that’s not what happened.

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So I find that what a lot of people liked about Strapping was the sense that, underneath it all, it was a search for quiet that was being expressed in such an 18-year-old’s mentality. So when Ghost comes along, it doesn’t surprise me because it’s the same person. It’s the quiet that was under.

It doesn’t surprise me, because I don’t think that I’m that different from everybody else. I think because of that, I like it and I would assume that the people who have a need for what I do also have a need in their day for things that are not violent or melodic, or confusing or not-confusing. There are a lot of things that our days need and my reaction to that is just to make music. That’s how I’m wired. 

There is an inexplicable visual aspect to a lot of your music. There is almost a sense of synesthesia with some songs. Do you have colour associations with some of your music?

I do. For me, when you say Triumph, the first thing that comes to my head is yellow. I know nothing about synesthesia. A lot of people have told me I have it, and I guess I do. But I don’t know. Maybe my connections between color and music is because I always used D’Addario strings, and the ball ends are coloured, so you know the red one is A! But I don’t spend any time thinking about that.

Something else that happens, more frequently than colour, is when I’m writing a piece of music, my mind puts me in a place, usually around Vancouver. A lot of riffs and songs are associated with locations, usually stupid locations, like a flyover in Vancouver, or a pasta restaurant. I think synesthesia is just a reaction to notes and each of us is wired differently, so what’s pink to me is green to you. I think it’s fun to think about it. It’s a subconscious thing, but I’ve never felt anything like ‘because Triumph is yellow, I’ll write it towards that end’

I cannot resist the temptation to hear your color associations with other songs.

Go ahead!

Deconstruction

Purple

Tiny Tears

Beige

Ghost

Green

Addicted!

Red

Bend it like Bender!

Pink

Earth Day

Light Green and Beige

Last one, The Mighty Masturbator

There are a few colours, because it’s such a long song. There’s blue, red and purple. Purple from the blue and red.

The full interview will be out in the July issue of ROLLING STONE INDIA.

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