BraveWords Interview: DEVIN TOWNSEND – “Let Me Tell You Why”

By Carl Begai

With the global pandemic’s continued stranglehold on everyday life, the goal here – unlike the tabloids that masquerade as metal websites – is to push conversation far away from everything virus-related in the interest of (blackened) soul-healing music. There are some instances, however, where it’s necessary to address COVID-19 and its effect on an artist’s career. Or in Devin Townsend’s case his current activities. Forced to scrap his Empath tour plans for 2020, Canada’s own Strapping Young Lad has released Order Of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1 to commemorate his December 2019 show in London, England, but this is only a dusting of what he’s been up to. Since March, Townsend launched a semi-ongoing podcast, streamed a series of off-the-cuff songs Quarantine Project songs to keep folks entertained, launched an effort to raise money for his out-of-work crew through merchandise sales, has performed a series of Quarantine Concerts to raise money for hospitals in Canada, the US and the UK, and put together a “virtual band” livestream show to make up for this year’s appearance at the Bloodstock Open Air getting blown out. No, boredom is certainly not an issue for Townsend in these trying times.

Devin: “I think I’m okay. It’s obviously very stressful in a lot of ways. Whether or not one subscribes to it, it’s the underlying anxiety that comes from this toxic and divisive period in time. It’s impossible to ignore. I think that undercurrent has made the fact that I’m finally at home and I’m finally in my studio a bittersweet thing because there’s not a lot of inspiration. It’s like, what are you going to write about? Are you going to compound the existing anxiety by writing about how you’re anxious? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s forced me to be outside my comfort zone, and that has propelled me down a lot of different avenues that I never anticipated being a part of. It’s been very fruitful, to be honest, and I should feel much worse than I do. All signs point to constant darkness and anxiety, but I’m trying to be as pro-active with that as possible so I don’t let that happen.”

BraveWords: Your podcasts are a good example of you being outside your comfort zone; you don’t sound all that comfortable digging into the inner workings of how your albums came to be. It’s definitely not the stage environment.

Devin: “Yeah, but you know what? I don’t think I’m that comfortable on stage for the most part, either. I think maybe that I’m just uncomfortable in general, and I’m okay with that. And maybe that’s the biggest change: recognizing what my true nature is as opposed to thinking that because I tend to be awkward, that’s an indicator of some sort of dysfunction.”

BraveWords: The Empath Live Volume 2 – By Request livestream show you did in September with the green screen band performance was a first, and it definitely set an example of what is possible if you put your mind to doing something. Artists like yourself are hungry to play live, just as the fans are hungry for live music, but what made you decide to go to the lengths you did for a lockdown show?

Devin: “That show sounded great and it looked like a low-budget ’80s sci-fi film. I think awkward times require innovative and occasionally strange ways to bring society together at this point, because we all have to contend with it. I just try to work under the assumption that for the people who enjoy what I do, it helps them if I continue doing what I do. It’s sort of a cyclical thing. I take inspiration from people who are doing things that help me, and I also take inspiration from people who aren’t throwing in the towel. What I bring to the table is my contribution, and that’s where I’m at right now.”

BraveWords: Where are you at creatively right now? It’s not like there’s pressure or deadlines to get things done with this virus messing up the works.

Devin: “There actually is. I’ve got management, the label, and the booking agents – even again this morning – asking me to confirm tours that we know aren’t going to happen. I think there’s a certain amount of that; it’s just that these venues going out of business and there are a lot of bands that rely on touring, so they hedge their bets by booking shows, then cancelling, then booking again. I set deadlines for myself because I function well with deadlines, and in terms of inspiration… it’s not a particularly inspiring time, so how I find I’m able to proceed during this period is to motivate myself. How I function best for self-motivation is through discipline. I’ve got a schedule that I keep for myself; exercise, meditation, dietary things. I just show up every day and write, work, answer emails, do interviews, and eventually there’s a lot of stuff that gets done.”

BraveWords: Like the songs you put together for your Quarantine Project at the beginning of the pandemic? A few of those were album worthy (“Honeybunch”, “Call Of The Void”, “Heavy Factions”, “A Newer Reign”), then there was the “Witch Doctor” cover (David Seville), and your version of “We Like To Party” by the Vengaboys…

Devin: “I love that Vengaboys song, man (laughs). No matter what anybody says, I love that song. What’s funny is that one of the steps that I’ve taken during this period – and it’s a byproduct of releasing that stuff – is I’ve stopped reading comments online. I don’t read the feeds on Twitter, and I don’t read anything on Facebook. I go to Twitter and keep my eyes on the left hand side, write my answers and that’s it. And if I post something on YouTube, I don’t look at the comments. In a sense I think that brings me back to what my own compulsions and motivations are. So if I do release something online, it’s not for any other reason than that’s the right thing for me at that time. I think it’s so easy to get wrapped up in YouTube comments, people telling you what you should and should not do.”

“A buddy of mine put something online the other day that I thought was just perfect; he said ‘Reading YouTube comments and getting upset about it is like seeing a pile of dog shit and consciously stepping in it.’ It was awesome (laughs) and it’s exactly how I feel. So, put it this way… if you ever see an album from me with those kind of stupid things on it, that’s because it’s what I felt like doing at the time and not because John_Hosehead_443 said it was the right thing to do (laughs).”

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