Arguably Canada’s best metal musician, and a beloved favorite the world round, Devin Townsend came to Helsinki recently as part of a tour promoting his latest release, the long-awaited follow-up to Ziltoid the Omniscient, Z2. Amy managed to squeeze in a slot to chat with him during his busy schedule, about music, Ziltoid, and any other strange and hilarious subject that happened to come up, to get a little insight into a fascinating mind.
“Getting twenty minutes to talk to Devin was both a blessing and a curse, because he’s a great guy that’s willing to talk about just about anything. The problem was that I could’ve spent all day chatting with him about just about any topic that came up, so twenty minutes is hardly enough to get a good pictures of him.
“Devin was full of smiles and eager to answer any questions I had, even if, as I teased, they were about Strapping Young Lad. Before the interview even got going, we had a brief chat about whether or not people should bring up his old death metal band in interviews.”
I opened up a forum online and said, “If you were going to ask Devin some questions, what would you ask him?” and someone said, “Is there ever going to be a Strapping reunion?” and three people were instantly like, “DON’T ASK HIM THAT! Don’t do it!”
[laughs] I appreciate the fact that people are sensitive to those sorts of things but at the same time, I mean, they’re legitimate questions, you know? If people really don’t know… I have answers, so it’s fine.
Well, with Strapping in particular, I think, with the number of people who come forth screaming, I think it’s pretty easy to find out that, no, Strapping’s not going to come back.
Well, the only reason why I choose or ask not to answer that question is just because the answer is really long, you know? It’s not as simple as no; it’s no for a specific reason in the same way that I want to also do other things again.
Yeah, I think you’ve said in some other interviews that it was an era that’s behind you, or something to that effect?
It’s not even that. It’s not behind me, it’s integrated more than anything else. I love Strapping, it’s a huge part of my life. It’s just not healthy for me and I’m not in the business of being a martyr for people. It seems to be like, as lucrative as it is for people to try and sacrifice themselves for the audience, I just don’t give a shit about that stuff. It’s not about that, it’s about me being functional as a human.
That makes sense.
I guess I’ll start this off with the latest album, the double album, Sky Blue and Dark Matters. Are these two thematically connected?
Yeah, they are.
So how are they connected?
The theme, in the same way of answering the Strapping question again, in a roundabout way, the theme is the same for Z2 as it is for Strapping or Casualties or Ghost or anything, and that is, music is not my reason, it’s the process that’s the important thing, and the process creates exhaust in the form of music. So as you grow, as you change, as you have life experiences, I just write. I never sit down with an intention of say, ok, now I’m going to write a puppet thing or write a heavy thing or write an apocalyptic or a pretty thing… it’s just that life dictates it. So Z2 is another example of that.
I had done the pledge drive and we toured and I was just so fucking tired and there were a lot of things in my life that were kind of depressing. You know, death, and just… life things. So as a result of having done the pledge drive I was finally in a position where I could make this puppet. I always wanted to make this puppet, since I saw The Dark Crystal when I was a kid, and the first version of it was just… I made it and it was shit. It was funny, it was quirky, but it was kind of stupid. So when we finally had money, I was like, well now I get to make the puppet. I want to do this up. So I spent a shitload of money on making this puppet and then wrote consequently the Ziltoid-themed music, which is woefully un-commercial. So label management banned everybody – we’ve got people on salary and a lot of things: they just suggested to me that we had done all this work with Addicted! and Epicloud and trying to make some sort of momentum, so putting out Ziltoid might not be the best move to continue that momentum and if I could find another bunch of music that was similar to that stuff that we could also sell. And I thought at first, oh sure, we have tons of that shit, but as I started doing it, it became apparent to me that it wasn’t that simple, because everything I wrote just sounded like a shitty version of Epicloud and I was just not into it. So I had to find an angle and the angle ended up becoming this battle against myself to create something that I was proud of in a scenario that I just didn’t feel like working in. I felt like playing bass and, you know, making chairs. So it became this struggle and then the theme ended up being based on that, the sort of you-against-you thing. And then in the end Ziltoid goes home and Sky Blue is about death but not ultimately letting it destroy you. So at the end of it, like every record, you come away from it with an objective point of view on what your life is trying to say to you, and I came from it realizing that I can’t allow that chaos to occur again. I can’t allow myself to be in a position where I again martyr myself for the sake of others, whether or not that’s a band or people or whatever. So that’s the theme and it’s connected as a result of the process.
You seem very in touch with yourself.
I am. I mean, I’m not in touch with my emotions, but that’s the goal, if you know what I mean? You know, sobriety – I’ve been sober for a long time. And children and life and all these things, right? I think if there’s an overarching theme to the work that I’ve done just in general it’s that I’m terrified. I’m a really fearful person, and so I’ve tried to close myself off from the experiences that define the human experience in general. I don’t want to experience fear and sadness and hate and love and all these things. It’s too much. But life has other plans and then you’re forced to confront it and you’re forced to think about it and the result of that is just… now I’m at a point where I’m like, emotional intelligence is the goal, because I just feel like I’m separate from it unless I’m creating music, which was good for a while, but you hit an end with that.
Sure. So how do you feel about Z2 as compared to the original Ziltoid album?
The same, I guess? It’s the same thing. I think that there’s elements of it I prefer, there’s elements of the first thing that I prefer, but it’s not even prefer, it’s just a different time, so what it means to say is different.
I suppose that’s the same with any story really. It’s all about what you want to say at what time.
Yeah. The first Ziltoid was a metaphor about separating myself from that part of me that was Strapping and being able to sort of say, well what is it? Is it anger? Is it fear? Oh, it’s fear. And then the new one is about kids. And there are kids that are liking Ziltoid, so he doesn’t swear anymore and he doesn’t do anything that would scare kids. That’s kind of the whole process with it. I mean, Captain Spectacular dies, and that upset some kids, but at the same time, he’s going to come back. I think accountability is a big thing, so the first one is more about separating you from yourself and this new one’s about merging it, I guess.
That’s really interesting.
You’ve done some of those specialty tours and shows where you just played the original Ziltoid album or you’ve done the Casualties tour fairly recently and a lot of people want to know if you’d ever do a show where you just played Ocean Machine.
Is that something that might happen?
Sure. I haven’t had any offers, but sure.
The song “Bastard” off Ocean Machine, does it not get played live because it’s so long?
We’re playing it at the Royal Albert.
Great! And then you’ve mentioned in another interview, I think, that you were hoping to do more collaborations in the future.
To clarify that, I’m not looking to collaborate with musicians as much as just, the musicians that I choose to work with… I’m open to the experience of integrating their ideas.
So in the same vein, Anneke van Geirsbergen was recently here with another one of her collaborators [Arjen Lucassen] doing an acoustic show and she said that she gets a lot of requests to perform your songs at her shows. So the question is, do you think you might ever do an acoustic show or something like that, with or without her?
Sure, I’m open to that too. Yeah.
So another rumor I’ve heard was that Z2 was the last album you were planning to do with the Devin Townsend Project moniker. Is that true?
I don’t know. I think the thing is now, that I’m going to do a symphony next and I’m going to probably just use my name for it. I think one of the mistakes that I’ve made in my career is being uncomfortable with using my name for things, for whatever reason. Maybe it was just a perceived sense of arrogance or whatever but I’ve had… even with Strapping, where it was just the same process. I did City the same way I did Casualties, but I didn’t want to call it my name. I didn’t want to call Casualties my name. It’s just… it seems like it’s some weird hang-up. So the symphony thing that I’m going to do, I’m going to use my name and Devin Townsend Project… I think we’ll probably continue with it. I’ve got some ideas for it and it’s growing into something that’s really good. It’s like a good and healthy environment. It’s not toxic in any way. There’s a lot of growth that happens between everybody involved and that’s not something to take lightly.
Cool. Well you kind of answered my next question about what your next musical project is going to be there as well.
So you were a part of Arjen Lucassen’s project, The Human Equation, and they are doing that stage show in Amsterdam in the fall. Did you consider at all reprising your role with that or have you declined it?
I never got asked, but I think it’s because Arjen asked the label and the label told them that it wouldn’t be something that I would be particularly interested in, which is the truth. But at the same time, it’s not meant as disrespect to him, because I think he’s really, really talented and I think that his show is worthy of it in many ways. I just… because of the way that my creative process works, in the same way that it’s difficult for me to consider Strapping at all, singing on other people’s shit is just fucked up. I don’t sing because I enjoy singing, I sing because it is my way of expressing whatever it is that I write about, and so if I sing on other people’s stuff, like different lyrics and all that stuff, it just seems absurd. Arjen’s thing was… I mean, I said no to it forever. I was like, “no-no-no-no-no” (that’s me saying no) and then he said, “Well what would it take for you to do it?” and I said, “Well, if I write my own lyrics, maybe.” And so I wrote my own lyrics and it was just an awkward scenario. I feel that way with any time I lend my voice to somebody’s stuff.
That’s a shame, and probably explains why Rage had so few parts, even though they were some of my favorites on that album.
The guy from Toehider [ed: Mike Mills] is doing it and he’s amazing.
As an artist then, you’ve clearly tinkered with a lot of genres; probably more than anyone else that I can think of at least who started out in metal. But your fans seem to stick with you pretty much no matter what you do and you’re kind of one of the only people I’ve noticed that that happens with. I mean, In Flames recently kind of changed up their style and have been getting a lot of shit for selling out or going mainstream or whatever. Do you think you’ve avoided that criticism and if so, why?
Ah, I’m not sure if I can say if I’ve avoided that criticism because I haven’t paid too much attention to it, but the why would be that I don’t try to do anything, I guess. I mean, if I write a commercial song, it’s because I feel like writing a commercial song. It’s not because I’m hoping for mainstream success, so as a result of that, something like “Save Our Now” or “Sky Blue” or any of these things are not coming from a place of trying to trick people into giving me money. It’s just because I like that type of music and I want to write it. It’s the same thing with crazy stuff, Deconstruction stuff, Ziltoid, or anything that’s kind of savage or whatever. It’s not that I’m doing it for any particular reason other than that’s what the compulsion is to do. I think that’s the same reason why a record like Ghost or a record like Casualties of Cool… people can get something out of it because it’s an authentic reaction for me. I wanted to write it because that’s what I felt like writing and not only that but it felt like I needed to write. So whether or not the style is something people are interested in, I think they’re going to hear in it that it’s coming from a place that is the same as Strapping or Ocean Machine or whatever. And I’m not saying that’s not what In Flames does, but maybe their way of writing in the beginning is different than mine. Maybe it’s more collaborative and therefore it feels different.
I think their main songwriter isn’t with them anymore too, so that’s probably a huge part of what changed with them.
They’re nice people.
So with regard to the lifestyle, you’re staying sober and away from the drugs and drinking and whatever. What do you do after a show? Most people have their beers then if they’re not already drunk.
Well I’m married and I have kids, so I don’t fuck around. I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. I play guitar a lot. I make silly pictures in Photoshop.
What about specifically after a gig, for example, when usually people start partying?
I like it to be quiet. On days off I like to have a tub [laughs], you know? I really like that.
Like a bathtub?
Yeah. Like if I’m in a hotel, I like that.
Man, we don’t have those in Finland. I miss them.
Yeah, me too! I love that. But I mean, I love playing guitar. Being bored is a real liability. I’m sure you’ve had the experience when you’re around people that are completely fucked up and they’re trying to talk to you and you’re like, “Oh my God, I fucking hate you.” I think a lot of it comes down to not allowing that to happen too, where you’re hating your friends because they choose something different than you. I mean, my reasons for sobriety are not because I think it’s the right way. It’s just… after being around for 40-odd years, I know there are certain things that just no longer work for me. I know I’m a better person for the people who I’m around if I’m not a total fucking space cadet.
Fair enough. Well I think we’re getting a little low on time, so I’ll switch over to the random fan questions from people who wanted to ask something.
First of all: Will Herman or the Poozers ever show up in your merch booth somewhere in some form?
You know, I like it. I think the things that, as with anything else, seem to be requested show up. A lot of… like the puppets – I can see you’ve got the puppet – I mean, he’s great, I fucking love that guy, but I mean we have to make five thousand of them at a time, so the investment of putting out that amount of money for something that may or may not sell… if you invest in a bunch of rubber shrieking butts and they don’t sell… there’s an element of that’s just like… yeah.
I think we [ed: photographer Jana and myself] can safely say that we’d both place an order.
Well, see that’s it. We’d sell two so far. We’re good to go [laughs]. I mean, I think it depends. It’s a fine line between what the perception of what we do is versus the reality, because the perception may be that we have a bigger market than we actually do, but you’ve gotta be careful with your investments, right?
Definitely. Who designed the characters anyways?
Well, it’s a combination of me and a couple other people. The poozers were a design from a friend of mine named Chris, and he’ll be there at the other thing, and we talked about the idea about these little farting things and we came up together with the name poozer, but then he came back with it finished, like, completed.
How do you come up with something like that in the first place? What were you talking about?
You know, it’s funny. It’s like a lot of times the creative energy is perceived as being some sort of insanity and I find that kind of funny too, right? It’s like, how do you come up with it? I mean, you just fuck around. You just go for coffee with people and then just have a laugh and…
Let the conversation go somewhere weird…
And then if you’ve got the type of people around you who don’t just leave it at that… like, “Okay remember that conversation we had? Well I made one!”
Oh God, I’m starting to remember some similar conversations I’ve had.
Well that’s it! It’s great, I love that, I love that shit! I think the thing is that all the pillow-talk stuff sucks, like when people are like, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” and then they don’t. I’m just surrounded by people that’d be like, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” and then we do! It’s great! The amount of people that think it’s crazy, it’s something that you can really articulate as well. It’s like, “That thing is crazy.” “Well please tell me why it’s crazy?” We were sitting around, we were drinking coffee, and things ended up going from here to here to here, and then this person does physical art and I do music and we have no parameters on us as to whether or not we have to succeed in one market or another, so we just did it. But still there are people like, “Well that’s crazy” and I’m like, “Really? Huh.”
Yeah, that’s how I feel too, but we’ll leave it to those who don’t think it’s crazy and take it from there, right?
Totally. Up next then, a question for the locals: Do you know of or listen to any Finnish bands?
Do I know of Finnish bands? Yeah. I mean, I know of Children of Bodom and Nightwish and Stam1na and, what’s that other one called? The one with the sailor thing. He’s on a boat and wears clown make-up and he’s a nice guy. It’s one guy… anyway, he’s good. And Insomnium are good. Oh God, I wish I could remember that guy’s name. It’s sort of a techno-y sort of metal thing and he wears clown make-up. I met him last time I was here and I met his girlfriend too and they’re both really nice.
[ed: We think that might’ve been Christopher Lee’s Suicide Love Boat]
So then bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation have recently released a movie and a comic book with their albums and there are lots of people asking for a Ziltoid movie. Do you plan to do anything with Ziltoid outside of just the music and the YouTube videos and the little things?
If we’re inspired to. If there’s money. No, we don’t have the money to do it and I don’t have the inspiration to do it. However, this next project I’m doing is a symphony and that’s going to have a corresponding visual component, whether or not it’s a film or just a texture, right? So we’ll see where it goes.
The most bizarre, random question here is, someone asked: If Ziltoid was a fart, what kind of fart would he be and what would be the shape of the stain?
Let me see… if Ziltoid was a fart, it would look like the Vernicious Knid from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory books. Sort of like a massive oil drop, and the stain would be a Rorschach test and you would see whatever you want to see in it [laughs].
That’s brilliant! For the last question, do you like coffee, yourself?
Yeah, I love coffee.
What would you consider the ultimate cup of coffee then?
Black, not too strong, with foam on stop, like Americano type, and just enough for me to not feel ill.
Is this the same cup of coffee for Ziltoid?
I think that he is deceived…
Has he ever tasted coffee, based on the videos?
Oh yeah. That’s his problem. It fucked him up. But I think when he realizes what he’s been looking for all along is tea, then he’ll be good [laughs].
Is that the plot twist?
That’s the plot twist, right? He finds it and it’s like Earl Grey or something.
That’s amazing! Well thank you so much for your time, and have a great show!
Since we had heard that Devin is a rather proficient doodler, we asked at the end of the interview if he could do a couple doodles for us. He very willingly sketched Ziltoid, a Poozer, and Herman for us!
Text: Amy Wiseman | Photos: Jana Blomqvist