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Interview conducted March 3 2017
Interview published March 31 2017

"I'm not trying to make a point. I just don't wanna feel like shit all the time, right?"

The Devin Townsend Project made a stop in Stockholm on their, at this point, recently finished European tour and Metal Covenant seized the opportunity to have a few words with the man himself. Even if Mr. Townsend is a pretty funny dude sometimes, he certainly is a profound human being for the most part and as a consequence this conversation was more about his personality and struggles than maybe the actual music itself, even if it for various reasons eventually landed on the Canadian heavy music scene and specifically the rock/hard rock band Nickelback.

Tobbe: Your most recent record, Transcendence, was out in September last year and I reckon the recordings started over a year ago, so if you now look back at the whole process, what do you see?

Devin: I think it was both the end and a beginning, in a weird way. It was the end of a period in which I felt the need to obsessively control every aspect of it. I recognized through doing this record that there is certain things that unequivocally I need control of. But once I have those and the identity of what I do remains then the strengths of the band become more apparent based on, you know, a lack of desire to strangle that out of them.

I think that would apply to any organization, you know what I mean? Like whether it's working with these guys or another band or a different group of individuals. It's all the same principle. And as a result of that, a result to opening that door, things kind of took another step. Plus I took a year and a half to two years to do nothing, right? And during that time the stock of this project has gone up and the shows have been ¾ or full for the most part of the tour.

Tobbe: So what words went through your head right before you started the songwriting for the record?

Devin: Oh, fuck. Here we go again. What made this record work for me is the fact that I had to put a lot of effort into caring about it, you know. And I ultimately did. But the sound that is this record is not new for me. This is something I've done for so many years and in many ways I just was over it, right?

But sort of diving into what it is and what the definition of what the style of music it is and what it's become and what it represents, along with a sort of loosening of the reins on everybody involved, not just the band, but management and producers and mixers and everything, allowed me to learn things about myself within the parameters of the sound and therefore it was still interesting.

Tobbe: Is your goal, like, always to improve? Or is that even possible?

Devin: Yeah, very much. I mean, music aside; you know, as we get older I can't get worse, man. Because everything in my life is falling apart as it is, right? Like: you don't have any hair, you're getting older and your skin's changing. All that shit's falling apart, so I have to try and make sure that all the things that are within my control to become better at, I'm proactively working towards. And for no other reason other than I feel much better when I do. You know, it's not for anything altruistic. I'm not trying to make a point. I just don't wanna feel like shit all the time, right?

Tobbe: So how much music that you actually make do you put in the trash and kind of say "Oh well. Maybe this is not good enough. Let's start over."?

Devin: Lots. I mean, it all eventually comes out it seems, like through bonus tracks or whatever. But I have a very strange relationship to writing music, because I do it sporadically without thinking about it and with a process that I believe is really efficient. Tons of music sort of appears, you know. It's not like I sit down with three songs, and write three songs, and forget about it. There may be six songs that happen in a week, but I don't really recall, at the end of the week, writing them. It's like jotting them down.

Like: I have an idea, and I piss around with it, and part of my process is making sure I finish it, so I, like, get things from beginning to end, but without participating in it, really at all. It's as close to improv as I can be. And then when I do go back through the archives there's some really thoroughly flashed out and constructive ideas and at that point I can choose which ones I wanna pursue, right?

Tobbe: This gift of being able to write music, could it also be a curse sometimes, because it's always music, music, music inside your head?

Devin: Yeah, but one of the things I've really started to recognize lately is that it's a curse if you don't learn how to control it and I think that in the past, for me, I've been guilty of assuming that I can't change certain things about myself, right? "I'll always be out of shape. I'll never be able to medicate.", you know what I mean? Like, all these things.

But, you know, I started exercising, and I learned to medicate, and each one of these things is really good for my self-confidence. And so one of the things that I've proactively been working on lately is: if it's making you crazy to think about music, learn to stop thinking about music. And it's been great. Really great. Because now I feel that only the good ideas are gonna come through. Maybe now, as opposed to barfing out six songs in a week, maybe I'll construct them slower, but I'm up for whatever happens.

Tobbe: And where does your inspiration come from? Do you, like, pick up inspiration from your past work or do you pick up inspiration in our contemporary world?

Devin: I think, like all of us, my life becomes the raw materials for whatever is next and the process that I employ to write ultimately ends in me sorting things out due to sort of regurgitating those raw materials through sound, right? So at the end of a record, often I'm able to identify this, like "Okay. Well, that's the sound of that period. That's the aesthetics of it. That's the colors." and that's where you were. And I think, as a result of that process… you know, my life is the thing I'm concerned about; I'm not particularly concerned about the music, 'cause it's just gonna dissolve over time, like those first records just don't exist anymore, as far as I'm concerned, you know. [Laughs]

Tobbe: Deep within, has it always been of great importance to you to come out original or unique?

Devin: I don't know; I don't think so. I think there's a lot of times where I wish it was not unique. I wish I could fit in, you know. I remember thinking that "Man, if I could only just be like the other bands." or "The other kids." or "The other people." or whatever. But I mean, I think now, at this age, I'm really happy that it didn't happen, because now I kind of have my own trip and I feel really good as a result.

Tobbe: Your music is very varied, and it's grandiose, and epic, but can you possible reach a bigger audience if you were to make music that was more in a direct or straight line that would be easier for people to comprehend?

Devin: Yes. And I'll tell you where I'm at currently: It's either gonna go in that direction [Points to the left.] or it's gonna go the exact opposite. Hopefully it goes both, in a sense. I like to think that with this band, with the DTP, we could make something together that was a lot more direct and then be a little bit more like, you know, modern rock kind of thing, but with a sort of emotional slant to it that isn't maybe in line with a lot of what commercial music is trying to sell, right?

That would be nice, and I think we could do that. But it would only happen if I had the opportunity elsewhere to make, you know, "1000 person cock symphonies" or something. Like, I have to have one to counteract the other, I think, or else I think I'd get resentful of whatever it is that I'm doing. That's what happened with Strapping [Young Lad] too. It became that to the exclusion of everything else to the point where I just didn't like it anymore, right?

Tobbe: So in what way will you try to develop your music in the far future then? I realize that it's hard to know now, but give me your best shot.

Devin: I think that it develops subconsciously and I think that the best way for me to be in line with the emotional authenticity, that I think has allowed me to sustain a career for this long, is to be really conscious of what I'm doing for myself now. You know, like I need to make sure that I've got my checks in balance as a person, that I listen more than I have in the past and that I'm more compassionate to myself, because I think in the past I really found solace in self-loathing.

But I think what comes with that is, like, a real lack of an ability to, like, empathize with people. So I think that in order for the next step, of which there's four directions that I could possibly go right now… In order for those to be actualized, the only thing I need to do right now is take care of myself physically and mentally. And at that point, like I talked about with the writing process, it will just happen. But I can't stress it. You know, I just have to take care of my voice, my mind and my family and all that stuff.

Tobbe: Even if you took a year off or so, you release albums quite frequently for being a guy in this day and age.

Devin: I have four projects that I'm flirting with right now. The reason why I made music with the frequency that I did, in my opinion, in hindsight, is that the addictive part of my personality, that I suppressed after stopping drinking, stopping doing drugs, or whatever, just migrated to productivity.

And I think a lot of why there was all that, and it was in some cases, unfortunately, was if I could invest myself so dramatically in my work then I wouldn't have to think about anything else. You know, kids and death and life and money and the state of the world and all that stuff. It's just really real and I think, getting sober, my first reaction to it was just like "It's too much. It's too intense". So I think I went into a working addiction and I like to think that now it's curbed a bit.

Tobbe: Don't you ever hit a dead end when you try to be creative?

Devin: I think until you're dead. I mean, if the raw materials are your life, then it's always in flux. Just the sheer act of getting older brings a ton of things into my world that I had no preparation for emotionally, like: I never thought that I wouldn't wanna listen to metal while I was eating. [Laughs] Then all of a sudden you get to the point where you just "That is, literally, the last thing I wanna hear right now.".

Tobbe: About heavy music and being Canadian. It's often quite hard for many heavy Canadian bands to get the recognition they deserve outside Canada, and in your own personal opinion, what lies behind that problem, really?

Devin: I don't know if I know, but I can guess. Canada rewards Canadian artists who remain Canadian, like exclusively. MAPL, I think it's Music, Arts, Production, Lyrics [It's actually Music, Artist, Performance, Lyrics]. If you keep that a 100 percent Canadian, the Canadian government rewards you for that. We're slowly moving into Canadian area a little more, like we're getting some grants from the government and we got an award from Canada, but we're certainly not part of the establishment.

But even within that, I went to the Awards Ceremony, the Canadian JUNO Awards, and the money there was insane. I was just like "Holy shit!". So in a lot of ways there's people who can have careers that are massive in Canada and you never hear from them anywhere else. When I was a kid I remember thinking "Well, everybody knows about Platinum Blonde.", but then you found out later that it was, like, exclusively a Canadian thing. So perhaps, and I don't know, the incentive to go elsewhere is not as strong if you're making a decent living and you don't have to travel.

But for me, my first gig was in L.A., so I kind of defected and I think, in a real sense, that has haunted me as a Canadian musician in Canada, because it's almost like "Yeah, but you left! You went to the States." and I said "But you know, we're doing these things elsewhere and we're all over the world." and they were like "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah… but you left!". [Laughs]

Tobbe: Because to me it's like your band, or your bands, and then there's Annihilator and we got Anvil and…

Devin: Well, there's Nickelback too. You know what's funny? I've been talking to their singer [Chad Kroeger] recently and he's a really fucking nice guy. I said "Why does everybody hate your band so much?", because I saw them live and they were great, like, I mean, they really were, but they've become this parody, right? So I said "Why is it…?" and he said that he thinks it's just, you know, the head is above water. It becomes like a target, in a weird way.

But I mean, in a weird way, Nickelback, let's take them as a band, whether you like them or not, they're universally, like, panned in Canada too. And I think to myself, even more so in a sense, because the jam spot they used to jam at… When I was a kid, Nickelback opened up for the band that we were playing with, I remember when Nickelback got famous, even they were against them, but for no real reason.

So I think in a lot of ways it's just like "Well, they got rich." and everybody else, just like "Okay. Well, fuck you!", right? I can't even talk about them with my brother-in-law, because he hates them so much, but I'm trying to figure out why, you know what I mean? I just find it interesting, because it's basically us and them that did heavy stuff from Vancouver and it's so hard for me to function in Vancouver. I don't know, man. I'm just interested. Sorry to digress.

Tobbe: And my final question: What's the biggest challenge for a musician of heavy music in 2017?

Devin: Keeping morale and band dynamics healthy in an environment where there's not the money to sustain a lifestyle that the work should afford. I do a ton of things on the side. I got books, and acoustic things, and Casualties Of Cool, and production, and mixes, and an online academy.

I got a ton of things and therefore, my wife works as well, I make more money than the guys in the band, but the job out here is really hard for everybody and when it comes down to the dollars and cents, it's so hard to maintain morale when the guys in the band deservedly so are saying "Come on. Can we get some more?" and then my job is to say "Well, we didn't tour for two years and we paid salary for those two years and we're not generating enough as a band for me to justify that.".

But then I'm like "Yeah, but I'm making more.", so should I take money that I've made and…, you know what I mean? But just like we're talking about with the meditation, just like we're talking about with exercise, it's a problem that can be solved, so currently, as in today, I'm trying to figure something out.

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