By Carl Begai
(Click here for my December 31st, 2009 interview with Devin about the Addicted album.)
We’re speaking metaphorically, of course, in reference to his return in the form of a remarkably understated record dubbed Ki. Completely devoid of the camouflage, smoke, mirrors and assorted baggage that enabled him to create the hellfuelled carnage that was Strapping Young Lad, it is the first of a four part introduction to the real Devin Townsend. The initial buzz surrounding Ki has been laced with confusion and some outright negativity due to its mellow nature, leaving fans ponder what might have happened to their revered Hevy Devy during his two year self-imposed hiatus from the spotlight. There are other diehards, however, that have followed him through his non-SYL escapades (Ocean Machine, Physicist, Terria, Synchestra) and embraced Ki as another important step in Townsend’s career.
Ki is also a pointed confirmation that Townsend wasn’t kidding when he announced back in May 2007 that Strapping Young Lad was dead. It was a decision made out of necessity, as according to the press release issued “the last tour (for The New Black) was a real struggle for him to muster any enthusiasm, mostly because SYL was initially created to vent all his frustrations, which no longer exist.” Furthermore, Townsend admitted flat out he was tired of touring and doing interviews, and had no intention or desire to return to the grind although he would release music from time to time. And while there’s little to no chance he’s going to resurrect SYL, Townsend decided in favour of the interview circuit in order to set his rather volatile record straight.
“I think the mistake that I’ve made in the past is considering interviews to be casual conversation,” says Townsend, settling in for what will become an eye-opening conversation. “A lot of times what’s happened with me in those situations in that I’d come into it either drunk or stoned or talking to the interviewer like I was talking to my buddy at the pool. Then the story would get printed and I’d look unstable in a lot of ways. I think for me, the fact I was smoking so much pot for so long, and compounding that with drinking, I was unaware of the fact that I had so many hangups about doing interviews and touring because I was doing things that were perhaps contrary to my nature. When I stepped away from that – not only quitting drinking and whatever else, along with the personal change that comes along with having a kid and quitting the band – I realized my motivations for doing things in the past were different than I led myself to believe. It becamse clear to me that a lot of the problems I had with interviews and touring were because I was a bit unresolved in my motivations for doing music in the first place. Much to my own discredit, a lot of that whole crazy mad scientist thing stemmed from a lot of that insecurity and confusion in terms of what my goals were.”
“For the past couple years that process of self-examination has led me to a place where I’m very confident in what I do,” Townsend states. “I’ve also made a very conscious decision that yes, music is what I do. Therefore, if it’s what I do then this is just part of it. Doing interviews at this point is good because there are a lot of things from the past that I’d not only like to clarify, but for the sake of this four record project they’re good to clarify. I can say ‘By the way, I’m not crazy; I was insecure and really high.’”
At the top of the pile of questions being asked is how Townsend was able to give up doing Strapping Young Lad. Forget that it made him a metalhead household name; it’s hard to fathom music as powerful as the SYL arsenal being silenced permanently by the person that created it.
“It’s powerful, but I think it can always be more focused and I think there’s a difference between certain types of power. I think paranoia is a power, I think fear and being insecure about things and therefore needing to deflect that by being scary or intense is a power as well. What I’m choosing to do now is kind of deconstruct my reasons and my methods for doing that in the first place. Yeah, of course that old music is powerful and I certainly don’t regret it or dislike it in any way. Where I’m at now emotionally, it’s important for me to be able to have these interview opportunities so I can be clear about that.”
The build-up to the Ki record and its forthcoming siblings actually began before Townsend officially pulled the plug on SYL. He explains:
“I think in total it took about three years. During that time I did the Ziltoid record, I did the Hummer record, and that stuff bridged one side to the other. During that time there was a good year where I didn’t do anything. Every time I picked up a guitar there was literally nothing there. For a while I started wondering if a lot of what I had kind of proclaimed musically was based on my lifestyle rather than a talent. That was disconcerting. When the music finally started coming it was a relief because I’m not very good at anything else. I have a kid now, so I was wondering what I was going to do for a living if I refuse to go back to those old methods. I’m qualified to flip hamburgers at this point.”
Townsend’s claim of having three more albums on the way is not an idle boast that will take years to see fruition. Having beaten his addictions and writer’s block, he went all out in creating an epic masterpiece and plans to have everything out this year.
“I’m working on them now,” he reveals. “They’re written and we’re recording the second one right now, we’ll mix it a month from now, so it’s a pretty intensive schedule but the music is written. I’ve got a vision, for lack of a better term, of what they’re going to sound like when they’re finished so at this point it’s just putting in the light work. They’re all going to be out by December. All the music was written at one time, and in all honesty I wondered if I should just do Ki and leave it, but I wrote all this stuff and I really like it. In my opinion it’s valid music, so to not do it would basically clog up the pipes for whatever comes next. I figured to purge it at this point would be my best bet. In the day and age that we’re at with the internet, anyone that wants to hear the music can do so, and if anybody wants to support it, that’s great too.”
He offers some insight as to what’s on the way…
“The songwriting wasn’t chronological, in all honesty, but the process is documented chronologically because otherwise it just would have been a hodgepodge of an emotional experience for the listener. My thought was… in the midst of this process there were some days where I was so mellow and all I wanted to do was not wake up the kid or quit weed. All of a sudden I wasn’t interested in playing anything but blues, or bass, or not playing music at all. Other days I’d be so on edge because of life and interviews and the whole works that I’d end up having these mental explosions. I just documented it all.”
“I remember seeing a bunch of women at a club dancing, and they really enjoyed it – I stopped looking at pornography at the time because it was amazing how much it affected my perceptions of other people – and it was like, ‘Man, I want to make music for them to dance to.’ They were beautiful. So I ended up writing this Addicted record, the second one, based on that. The Deconstruction record comes from my desire to make a record in order for me to get past the Strapping thing and the fact there are going to be people that don’t want anything from me unless it’s destructive. I have to tell you, for me to make that music, it’s self-destructive, and I’m in no position mentally and I’m not willing to be a martyr for some bullshit musical cause. I can’t do that. Does that make sense? Those people will say no, so okay, one of these records I’ll make for you. The whole idea behind Deconstruction is deconstructing why we like that heavy music. The intention, ultimately, is to get people to go ‘You know what? By playing these four records back-to-back I never realized I appreciated that quiet.’”
“I’m not on a mission,” he adds. “I tried to stop making music, dude, and I ended up making four records (laughs). I can’t stop, apparently.”
No question, Ki is shaping up to being another misunderstood Devin Townsend record, hot on the heels of the unfairly discredited Ziltoid The Omniscient album from 2007. Call it a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees or simple dumb-ass ignorance, but my BW&BK review for the record criticized a perceived lack of fire, complaining that Townsend decided to go out with a whimper rather than the roar one expected to herald the end of a career. He remembers those words quite well.
“Ki is different,” Townsend agrees. “I read your review on the Ziltoid record and it confused me because I was surprised you didn’t get it. I was thinking that there are a lot of folks in my world from the past that expect something from me, and when you do something that’s honest and they don’t understand, you start wondering if you haven’t made yourself clear enough in the first. With an album like Ki, yeah, I’m losing lots of people who like what I used to do. There’s something to be said for people that have an emotional attachment to how a record contributed to their life at a certain point. Like Ocean Machine or Terria in your case. If the musician grows and changes a lot of people are resistant to that change, and I totally understand that, but I’m doing exactly what I want. To the people who don’t understand it, I understand their thinking, but I don’t have it in me to justify the Ki album. In my opinion it’s perfect.”
“To me Ziltoid is one of the most important records in the entire catalogue. And even the way it ends, the whole point of that bridge and that metaphor, that stupid puppet that drinks coffee, all that shit, it’s not funny (laughs). That was the drugs, and I was getting rid of them and realizing that I had to accept the fact I was a powerless human nerd desperate to be part of some club and to belong. When people start telling you you’re really talented, you’re a genius, you’re crazy, you start question it. Am I any of those things? Hell no. That’s why when I read your review I was thinking ‘I can’t believe Carl didn’t get that.’ Of all the people that didn’t get it – and a lot of people didn’t get it – but you and I have been talking for so long that when I read your review I was shocked. It’s as obvious as balls on a tall dog (laughs). Every character on the Ziltoid record is supposed to be me battling with myself, and at the end… does it end with a whimper as opposed to a roar? Absolutely. There is no roar. That roar is based on something that I was resolving.”
Ki can and should be viewed as the next logical step in Townsend’s career as a musician. The diversity of the music in a catalogue boasting projects such Punky Brüster, Ocean Machine and Synchestra in amongst the mayhem of Strapping Young Lad’s five album run practically screams for a record like Ki. It’s also an album of quality music that grows on you in spite of any initial perceptions.
“Of course it does. You also have to realize, and I’m sure you do, that Ocean Machine was 15 years ago and I’m 40 years old now. There are people on the internet unwilling to accept anything from me that isn’t within that guideline of what they’re willing to accept. I really do understand that, but at the same time you don’t have to buy it. I’m not twisting your arm. I do what I want and the only person I’m accountable to is myself. For me to try and recreate something that was the product of an emotional state when I was 24 when I’m 40 doesn’t seem to make much sense. I do what I want because when I get inspired to take a certain avenue musically, that’s it, there are no preconceptions that three years down the road I’m going to do something like this or that. When my life goes in a certain direction, all of a sudden something comes out.”
“I’ve got a ton of different types of music that I like, I love metal and I’m good at it, but it’s one spoke on that emotional wheel. As a dynamic, I ultimately want to do orchestra music, I want to do symphonies. To have that dynamic in metal, so when it gets to the climax you’re really capable of hammering it home with that backlog of knowledge in heavy music. But all heavy all the time? That’s like eating steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then turning to one of your friends and saying ‘I want oatmeal for breakfast today.’ They’re like, ‘What’re you, gay?’ Steak is great, sure, but if I eat it in the morning I feel kind of brutal by about 10:00am.”
“The thing is, each record in my catalogue is chronological,” Townsend adds. “Unto themselves I can see how it could be a little off-putting, but at the same time if you follow one to the next there’s a story that goes through all of them. The end of one record is the beginning of the next, and this four record project is going to document exactly this personal change I’ve been talking about and in a lot of ways clarify what I was trying to do in the past. I’d be fine to play music like Ki for the rest of my life, and in all honesty it’s too heavy for me. When I started doing Strapping Young Lad it was right after Vai (Sex & Religion) and I was angry and all that, so I just wanted to make some noise and be an obnoxious prick. Then, all of a sudden, you get popular for making noise and being an obnoxious prick, and no one is willing to accept the fact that perhaps that’s an illusion right off the top. I’m proud of all that stuff and it’s from the heart, but truly, I want to play acoustic guitar and get some flute players. But there are people that won’t let me do that because they’re attached to Strapping Young Lad or whatever. If that’s the case, don’t buy Ki, download it and burn a CD.”
“Going back to Ziltoid, that record is exactly what I was going through,” he continues. “All of a sudden I was quitting Strapping Young Lad and Ziltoid was supposed to be this metaphor for that projection that people believed was me; this omniscient bullshit figurehead. When you tear it apart you realize I’m just a person like everybody else, so perhaps that projection is based on you being powerless and insecure. I think the thing that’s disappointing about that for some people is they really want that image. Marilyn Manson is going to put himself into his grave because he’s so addicted to that persona he’s created for himself. I’ve come to the conclusion I am who I am. I’m not incredibly intelligent, I’m not incredibly unintelligent, and I make music.”
Whether the fans accept Townsend’s “new” musical direction Strapping Young Lad will always be lurking their minds as they hope and pray for a return. He knows and accepts that, but now that Townsend has a clean non-addiction bill of health it simply isn’t going to happen.
“The thing with Strapping is I got obsessed or addícted to being part of this club that I don’t have too much of a right to be in in the first place,” he reveals. “You sit me on a tour bus with all these popular heavy metal bands and I’d throw a conversation killer into a public debate. Everybody would look at me like, ‘That’s not cool.’ After the Ziltoid thing it was like, ‘Well, I’m not cool, sorry.’ People only want me to do Strapping Young Lad and that’s it, and I’m thinking ‘I can’t, so either I’m going to be able to explain this to you through the music or through conversation, or it’s a lost cause.’ If it’s a lost cause, hey, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“When I quit smoking weed I realized that a lot of my paraoia ended up in my music. I realized that a lot of the bombast… the music just demands your attention, and my attention as an adult now is demanded in so many different directions that when I listen to music I don’t listen to Meshuggah or Opeth anymore. I don’t listen to heavy music because every time it comes on it’s like ‘Quit fucking yelling at me. There’s so much shit in my life that the last thing I need is for you to try and convince me of something.’ There are always going to be one or two people saying ‘You’re full of shit, that’s not you.’ Like going on tour with Strapping; we’d do the Download Festival and I’d be up there projecting myself like Zeus or a fourth dimensional alien (laughs), and then I’d go home to my parents and it’d be like ‘Hi Devy, here’s your favourite blanket…’ I realized I’m not that guy on stage. On some level, of course I’m that guy, but the decision I had to make was whether it was a projection of truly me. That’s why I put Strapping aside. I saw that if it truly me being afraid and trying to fit in, not only am I being untrue to myself, I’m posing to everybody. The only heavy music that I respond to come from people that mean it, and if I’m up there posing for somebody that’s not heavy music to me. That’s a fucking commodity.”
“When we did Ozzfest I remember thinking that Strapping Young Lad started as the middle finger, and then suddenly there were people saying ‘Yeah! Tell us we’re assholes!’ I wrote The New Black about that, about the parody of ít, because that was the only thing I could get behind in terms of what Strapping had left for me at that point. I made a record that was supposed to be this larger than life Biggest Band In The World record, so when we did all those big shows it was part of the whole game. That’s why when Ziltoid came out a lot of people were like ‘How dare you expose that?’”
“What made City such a great record in my opinion also made Terria a great record and Ki a great record. I’m being honest. If I tried to continue Strapping, what would I sing about? Hey, I’m a fraud! I actually really like Enya! Let’s rock! So that’s what this four record process is about. What you want from me is crazy music? I’ll show you how crazy I can be when I’m sober, and it’s incredibly over-the-top.”
Live picture of Devin Townsend by Carl Begai (1998). All rights reserved.