(Click here for my May 13th, 2009 interview with Devin about the Ki album)
By Carl Begai
Devin Townsend’s last album, Ki, was a clear message that his beloved Strapping Young Lad was indeed dead and buried. Capping off two years of self-imposed silence, the laid back and atmospheric record seemed better suited to a university poetry reading or smokey after hours blues club than the catalogue of someone known for making authentic Norwegian black metal seem tame. Townsend was and remains unapologetic for the scare, and as promised he’s followed Ki up with the second installment of his unofficial Circle Of Hevy Devy’s Life four album exercise under the Devin Townsend Project moniker. And while it’s safe to say that very few people saw it coming, the appropriately titled Addicted may well be one of his strongest outings to date. It depends, of course, on how much one has enjoyed (or not) Townsend’s work outside the Strapping Young Lad demolition derby over the past 15 years, but anyone who is a fan of the man’s diversity as a singer, songwriter and straight-up musical talent won’t go away disappointed. If you do, check to see if your heart is still beating.
“It’s funny. I was talking to a friend of mine at ESP Guitars recently and he said that he didn’t understand why, if I do a record that has the potential to go somewhere, that I can’t keep doing that,” says Townsend. “I tried to explain to him that my process is automatic. I don’t think about it, I don’t preconceive it, and when I write songs I can literally sit down at my computer, turn it on and start writing. If someone left me there and gave me the chance to pee and eat I could have a record a month later. And I wouldn’t know what it was about. I’ve always had a connection to music that is hand-in-hand with my emotional development. Of course there are moments when there’s nothing – you sit there for a while and realize ‘I just wrote something that’s really bad’ (laughs) – but when the creative juices are flowing the music just comes out. I’m not trying to say I’m on a mission and other people should do this too – it’s honestly not the case – but when I stopped smoking weed and stopped drinking, when I got my shit together, my ability to just go on autopilot really went through the roof. What I found, which is really ironic, is that the easiest way for me to create in to get into myself, to forgive myself, and not to absolutely detest everything about me. I’m working on that (laughs).”
“I think that there are a couple different styles of writing music,” he continues. “There’s the style of music where somebody will spend five years on an album and it’s a collaborative effort between five different musicians. The end result is a product of everybody’s work and in a lot of cases that type of music turns out to be the best because you’ve got that sense of compromise and unity. That really takes the music to another level. I’ve never really engaged in that type of writing and I’d like to in the future, but I think it’s going to take getting this really selfish element of my creative process purged. What I’m hoping to do with my current music (laughs).”
“There’s another type of musician that will take an idea and sculpt it until it’s perfect, but the ideas aren’t as many or they don’t come as quickly. Then there’s me, where I get a lot of ideas and take them to the level where I think it’s best going to represent the emotional content, and I go with it.”
Diehard fans of any artist will endure changes in musical direction, tweaked image, line-up changes, joining Ozzfest (often interpreted as a sell-out move), out of a sense of loyalty. Townsend’s fans are no different, but Ki pushed those limits of acceptance even for those that were able to find worth in his work outside the Strapping Young Lad façade. Beyond the required explanations as to “why?” when the record first came out, it’s reasonable to assume that Townsend has to defend Ki’s existence when you stack it up against the likes of his Ocean Machine, Terria or Synchestra albums.
“That’s an interesting point but at the end of the day I don’t feel like I have to defend myself, ever. I need to just explain why life led me to that place. Going back to what I said before, I don’t decide what I’m going to write. When I was writing these four records it was very interesting because it was such a free-for-all. When I got bored of writing Ki I’d write for Deconstruction, and when that got too heavy I wrote something like ‘Bend It Like Bender’ for Addicted. When that got too fluffy I wrote something for the fourth record. The process was a little different but generally I don’t really guide where the music goes. Defending why you were led in a certain way is kind of pointless.”
“At the same time, those people deserve an explanation. I remember when I was 18 years old I was rabidly obsessed with Jane’s Addiction. I loved that band to the point that it was unhealthy (laughs). I was into Primus and all that stuff but Jane’s Addiction was a big thing for me, and because the sound of that band was the soundtrack to so many emotional events in my life it was hard to accept something different from them. When Porno For Pyros came out I remember thinking ‘I don’t want to hear them do that.’ As you said, I think it’s fair for the audience to have that kind of reaction.”
“I think the reason why I gave these projects different names is to say ‘If you like Strapping Young Lad, there’s the entire discography,’” Townsend offers. “There’s an entire history of that emotion, right to the bitter end. If that’s what those people are looking for and what they need emotionally there’s a whole legacy of it. Addicted is the same thing; if this is what you want here it is. The biggest thing about Ki… that album was for me, man. I love that record, but I totally understand why people that are used to a certain style from me are just saying ‘What the hell?!’ (laughs).”
Getting into the guts of Addicted, it’s necessary to first address the biggest element of the production outside Townsend himself, namely Agua de Annique / ex-Gathering vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. When word of her involvement first got out people naturally assumed she would be providing backing vocals as a contrast to Townsend’s voice, as heard on the track ‘Addicted’ leading off the record. In actual fact, her full scale lead vocal entrance on ‘Bend It Like Bender’ three tracks in sets the stage for a magical collaboration.
“With Anneke… I have no idea,” Townsend laughs. “There are some people that believe in fate and I think me working with Anneke falls into that category. I’m not saying I believe in fate, but if you do there you go. I knew that I wanted female vocals on Addicted and I was going to get Ché (Aimee Dorval), who sang on Ki to do it. Unfortunately Ché wasn’t around at the time. Two weeks before I started the vocals, I wasn’t necessarily nervous but I knew there had to be female vocals on the album, and I got an email from Anneke. Just out of the blue. She introduced herself in the email with the message ‘Here’s a YouTube link of me singing ‘Hyperdrive’ with my band.’ Of course I knew who she was, and to hear that song done like that breathed a whole new life into it. I went to sleep that night and had a dream that I was in rehearsal. We were doing ‘Hyperdrive’ and when I went up to the mic to sing it was Anneke’s voice that came out. When I woke up the next morning I sent her a mail saying ‘This is a bit crazy, but do you want to come to Vancouver and make a record?’ (laughs).”
Van Giersbergen’s surprise rendition of ‘Hyperdrive’ is one of Addicted’s jaw-dropping moments in that Townsend gave her all the lead vocals, stepping out of the spotlight almost entirely with the exception of some harmonies. The end result is a song far superior to the original, which appeared on the Ziltoid record. Townsend is the first to agree that her contributions to Addicted give the record its backbone, and it may well be some of the finest work of her career.
“Dude, absolutely! Anneke could have sent me that mail saying ‘I thought you’d like to hear me do that song of yours better than you did’ (laughs). When she came down we wrote a bunch of songs, she sang her parts, and I think a lot of the time with the male / female vocal thing is Masculine Male and Weak Female. This was a case of two human beings singing together as opposed to male and female. The thing that I really wanted to get with Addicted which was perfect with Anneke was the idea of two people. One of ‘em’s got a female voice and the other has a male voice. That’s what makes it strong for me because Anneke’s got a very clear voice; it’s not like she sounds masculine. Her voice is feminine but it’s strong to the point where it can sit on top of anything and not be overshadowed by the masculine voice.”
“The reason I selected the rest of the members of the band, which made having Anneke involved that much more appropriate, is that we’re all around the same age. Three of us have got kids – myself, Anneke and Ryan (Van Poederooyen / drums) – and Anneke and I were both signed to Century Media pretty much in the same year. Mandylion (The Gathering’s third album) came out the same year as Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, so we’ve both been through that Century Media school, and I think there was something about that. I remember when Mandylion came out; I listened to it incessantly and it was because of her voice. She had this perfectly confident little voice; it was huge without being huge. So, when she came to Vancouver, honestly, she got off the plane and we just started yapping (laughs). We talked about the record a little bit, we talked about her records a little bit, but more than anything we just talked. About life, kids, spirituality… just like what you do when you’re hanging out with somebody. During the time we were hanging out we got a couple records done.”
Townsend does have a few “solo” moments; the title track and ‘Universe In A Ball’, which sound like the lighter side of SYL’s final album The New Black, and the balladic ‘Ih Ah’, which is too heavy to have appeared on Ki, more reminiscent of his Ocean Machine days.
“The thing with ‘Ih Ah’, I had three particular dreams during Addicted and ‘Ih Ah’ came to me in one of them,” he reveals. “It was playing to me in my dream, and I remember it being such an emotional experience hearing that. I woke up at 4:00am thinking ‘That’s my favourite song on the record… so I’d better get out of bed and fucking write it’ (laughs). So, I went to the studio at four in the morning and started writing the song, and by noon it was finished.”
Reactions to Addicted have been very positive in the wake of the confusion that surrounded Ki, but again, people who were hoping for a return to the beast within Townsend’s persona have been left out in the cold. For the time being. Addicted is a very positive, very upbeat record, flirting with pop and big dumb rock within the heavy passages that can be found.
“Somebody said the other day it’s like a heavy Ace Of Base album,” Townsend laughs. “For the people that get the shit scared out of them by the happy element of the record, they should remember that this is record #2. The next record, Deconstruction, I can’t even describe how off the scale it’s going to be, and that’s not necessarily negative either because the intention behind it is going to war with myself.”
“The people who like Ki, really, were people my parents’ age. I’ve got a friend down the street, 60 years old, and he thinks Ki is awesome. He told me ‘I’ve never liked anything you’ve done but that one I did.’ I remember when I sent Addicted to the drummer for the Ki record and he said ‘Yeah, it’s cool, but it feels like I’m playing pro football without my helmet on’ (laughs). Ki was up his alley but he had no idea what direction I was going in with Addicted. I’m going to be fighting that battle again when I do Deconstruction. The thing about Addicted is that it has to be this way in order to illustrate this part of the story, so when it gets to Deconstruction there are going to be a lot of people surprised by how dark it is and wondering why I didn’t stick with the positive vibe of Addicted.”
An even bigger surprise than Addicted’s sunshine and happiness vibe is the news that Townsend will be touring over the course of 2010. Having admitted that his discontent with touring life had been a major factor in deciding to put Strapping Young Lad to rest, it’s a head-scratcher hearing that he has willingly signed-up for weeks and months of roadwork.
“I wasn’t going to tour until all four records were done,” Townsend reveals, “but as a musician in the current climate – because records really don’t sell that much anymore when it comes to artists like myself – if what you want to do for a living is continue to create, touring in 2010 is essential. There’s no real other way to say to people ‘Here’s what I have to offer.’ The trepidation that I had with touring and doing press for Strapping, a lot of that came from the fact that because my head wasn’t clear and somebody would ask me ‘Why did you do this?’ I didn’t have a good answer. I was so afraid of myself and what the true answer was I couldn’t talk about it. There was a choice there. I had the choice to stop and to not be a musician. There was something under the surface and it took me three years to come to the conclusion that I fucking love being a musician.”
“I love writing music, I love playing for people, I love playing guitar and being artistic and singing. The works. But, I have to be very confident in what I’m putting out to the world, be it positive or negative. When someone says ‘I misinterpreted this, why is it like that’ I have to be able to say ‘Because of X, Y or Z…’ and that’s the end of it. It took me three years to go ‘Damn dude, you are so fortunate to have this opportunity and have people who listen to the music and support you.’”
It’s worth noting, however, that Townsend will be leaving one very significant part of his past under lock and key when he finally hits the stage again:
“No Strapping tunes,” he says, blunt and dead serious. “I think the thing people will be shocked by is how heavy the Ziltoid stuff is. We’re doing a lot of Ziltoid, we’re doing a lot of Physicist, and man, some of that music is every bit as heavy Strapping when it’s in a live context. There are going to be a certain amount of people thinking that I’m distancing myself from my past, but that’s not the case. For me to distance myself from Strapping is ridiculous because Strapping was who I was when I was doing it. Every minute of it. There’s no embarrassment and that’s what led me to where I am today. I love Strapping Young Lad. We did everything to the best of our abilities, I love Jed and Gene and Byron, but unfortunately because I’ve solved certain things in my emotional development in an artistic sense, going back to it for the sake of the fans or money is incredibly disgusting artistically.”
— Devin Townsend photos by Erich Saide
— Anneke van Giersbergen photo by Paul Bergen