DEVIN TOWNSEND Talks: Empath, Tour and The Motivation Behind His Music

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Canadian singer/songwriter has been on the metal scene for quite some time, and while he might not be one of the most well-known artists around, he is certainly one of the most talented and versatile. After having disbanded The Project and releasing his album titled Empath through InsideOut Records,  Townsend is redefining the realm of just how both unpredictable and limitless music can be through a transfusion of metal, EDM, opera, classical, new age and even calypso. The result is an absolute masterpiece resonating through what Townsend referred to on the five-part series of documentaries found on YouTube as a process that took him down psychological and technical avenues of good and evil existing together.

We sat down with Townsend to discuss his acoustic tour with Avatar, his upcoming headlining tours, the new record, the end of an era with The Project and the beginning of a new journey in his career. “The tour with Avatar was such a great opportunity for me to be able to start promoting the new album at a much slower pace than I would have done in the past,” Townsend confesses. “It was such an incredible undertaking to get this thing done exactly the way I wanted it, and so when they came to me and said I needed to go back on tour my first thought was ‘Oh, God!’ “But by doing an acoustic set, it has allowed me to make it a lot more low key, and it has been a lot less pressure than my regular shows. Since this one in North America has been with Avatar and their friends, basically, I have gotten to hitchhike with them and share their bus and crew. It has helped me to ease my way back into this and some nights have been absolutely brilliant, but some nights have also been what you would imagine an acoustic set to be like when it’s done between two metal bands” Townsend laughs. “I mean, it’s not the traditional acoustic show where it’s super mellow but it still has the elements of what I usually do only with an acoustic guitar.”

Townsend’s recent album Empath was inspired by the idea of good versus evil existing together in juxtaposition with what is going on in the world today. Not in its entirety but in the sense of how social media has created this extreme frenzy between people and their opinions and their stances. The evolution of opinions has streamlined its way into the entertainment industry, and music is no different as current events continue to gain focus through artistry. Townsend didn’t confirm whether or not this album was solely influenced by the external thoughts of others more so than his creative tendencies but he did shed some light on what his mindset was. “Sometimes I wish I could determine where the ideas came from and I don’t like to provoke myself to be about one certain thing, at least not all the time. It would be convenient to base it all on the obvious, but that is not always what happens with me” Townsend says. “I will do one thing, and then if I don’t really dig the idea, I just get bored and want to do the opposite. I try to keep this tendency at bay, especially recently. I think everyone is perpetually dissatisfied and that is part of the problem. I think it influences me just because it’s omnipresent. My work over the years has always just been a direct reflection of what I’m thinking about, I guess. And as you pointed out, the world is increasingly more polarized, and we can’t avoid that. It’s like every time you turn on the TV or open their browser or what have you, it’s just us against them, and this person vs. that person and I can’t imagine this all doesn’t play into it to a degree. I think there’s the whole point of impasse and so I was to trying to find a way to view it from a different perspective. Helping people to see they’re not as stuck in the this and that type of thinking, the black and white thinking. So yeah, I’m certain that it played into it and I’m sure whatever I write next will be influenced by whatever’s going on around me then too.” This is a record that will surely stand out and challenges the expectations within a genre of music through a wonderful rainbow of different elements going on. When you truly think about the DNA of metal alongside opera, EDM, classical, pop, country and amongst a few, they all collide uncomfortably but unexpectedly harmonious.  Townsend goes on to tell us “I didn’t do it to be provocative or anything I don’t take a lot of pride in the sort of thinking of myself as a genre mashup type of guy or anything. I just think that life, in general, includes so many dynamics just on a day-to-day basis. You may wake up in the morning and may be feeling one way, and then you may get some shitty email that makes you feel another way and then you may have an interaction with somebody that’s really great or an altercation with somebody that’s really negative. You may feel sad after lunch and then see something funny. I mean these are all kinds of ups and downs of life, and it was extremely important for me to try and represent what life is actually like on this record as opposed to an idealistic version of life where we want it to be controlled. We want it to be one thing and then a happy ending and this and that. Life is random and chaotic, and so all those different styles on this record are more of a representative of that. The music tells a story in addition to what you’re saying in the songs in some ways. It’s not a linear trajectory with the story, but, everything I do has a story to some degree, and I think the reason why it’s been that way, is it just gives me some spaces to color in and I enjoy that. And if I can kind of establish some sort of storyline within the context of an album, it allows me to do things on a real practical level. Like, okay, well this song should now come here, and now it needs to get dark and now needs to get light and now it needs to have some sort of release. And, so everything I’ve done for as long as I can remember has had some sort of story, but it’s not necessarily an overt-one, like in musical theater” Townsend concludes.

If you have been a longstanding fan of Townsend, you have also experienced his outside the box thinking that is transparent in not only his music but the videos he creates to help tell the story of each song. But which comes first? The music or the video? And what provokes the adventures he creates visually. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the concepts,” Townsend says. “I just have a lot of creative ideas. I always have, and the biggest problem is trying to fund it. I’ve been fortunate enough to find that my experiences led me to this company that was willing to go further than the budget allowed. For instance, I had a pretty specific idea in mind for the Genesis video, I basically told them to just put me in front of a green screen and let me listen to the song and then I’ll just give you a list of what my mind’s eyes sort of think of in each section of the song. And then if you just use your imagination to articulate it in a way that can be done in the timeline that we’ve gotten to accomplish this, then great. But, there’s not a lot of deep thinking that goes into these. It’s more just like, wouldn’t it be cool, you know?”

After the Project separated in 2017, Townsend’s career underwent numerous changes. Townsend describes the circumstances to us, mainly citing that the project had run its course. “It was time. There are certain parameters that a rock band imposes on someone’s creativity, specifically, if someone isn’t sharing the same beliefs that I do. I have more of a vision-based writing style and for years, I did my best to fit that into a boxed way of thinking for the band’s sake but after a certain amount of time, I just felt the need to pursue my ideas for what I really wanted to do like Empath and with everything else coming up, it was all just bigger than for what a rock band was built for. Not to mention, costs a lot to run a band and it became tiresome, to be honest. They were all good people, but people change and I know I have changed. It was just time for a change.” Townsend has continued his ongoing relationship with InsideOut Music for licensing and distribution of his music which was recorded through his own label HevyDevy Records. Century Media who is now owned by Sony has been instrumental in Townsend’s career giving light to Townsend’s visions and bringing them to life. “I know that I would not have had the career I do if it wouldn’t have been for Century Media and Inside Out. I think it’s a bit of an anomaly in the industry because they allowed me the creative freedom to do what I wanted to do. I don’t take anything for granted and am very, very proud that the pieces of the puzzle still work in the capacity they are allowed to at this stage.”

Townsend credits everything to his loyal fanbase who always goes along for the ride and is receptive to his new music with open arms. Oddly enough, the fans or even the non-fans or soon-to-be fans have no impact on the music that he writes and they surely do not act as his motivation to do the kind of music he does. “On some level, I am an entertainer and I do love it when I look out and see masses of people at my shows, but, in a weird way, what drives me is being on the road and seeing the fans out there in the audience and performing for them; but I write my songs for me not for the money, but out of pure creativity” Townsend explains. “I think I follow the creativity to where it leads and if I feel absolutely compelled to do something that requires more outlandish creativity than so be it. But I’m also prepared for it to require less than that, and if that’s the case then so be it. But, money has never been the motivation for me and I purely write based on what is going on around me and that fluctuates. I figure as long as I can take my family on vacation and my bills are paid then that is all I can ask for.”

The music industry is an endless learning experience and it is so detrimental to an artist that they not only continue to educate themselves on how things evolve but to also learn from other, more established artists. Townsend’s longevity and uniqueness have not gone without trial and error. He admits the industry itself hasn’t changed him and he hasn’t really had one defining moment that inspired him within his music career but he did start somewhere and has stated that at a young age he just fell into it. “I enjoyed playing guitar and put out demos as everyone does and then I got signed and moved to Los Angeles. There was never really a question of what I wanted to do with my life but when I was introduced to Steve Vai and sang on his Sex and Religion album, I was only 19 and I was headstrong and it was difficult but I learned from it and knew I just needed to do more and do my own music” Townsend concludes. “Would I have done anything differently if given the chance, perhaps. But those things and experiences also led me to where I am now.”

Being that he began at such a young age, we asked Townsend what kind of advice he would give to some of the newer bands and artists to inspire them. Townsend says “You have to learn how to deal with failure. I think that this extends not only to just a singular project that doesn’t succeed or a show that doesn’t go well but, also on a social level. There are days when you are in a weird mood and you may say something that is offensive to someone, or you may say something that comes out wrong and is misinterpreted. And a lot of people, myself included have to go through things like that. There are times you feel mortified or embarrassed or humiliated but getting over that and getting past that point of a knee jerk reaction to things is a huge benefit, especially if you are just starting out” Townsend says. “If your natural reaction is to shut down and avoid taking risks or trying again and forgetting that taking risks is the cornerstone of improvisation, the key is learning to get over yourself and past your failures and set aside your ego. The main thing is to keep going and not dwell because there will be plenty of instances of success to come out of those disappointments.” The creative process can be a daunting one but all in all, you have to trust yourself and your artistic instincts. Townsend tries to keep a level of discipline and meditation in his daily life and lives with the notion that sometimes it’s ok not to have anything to say. “It’s ok if you have one day where you are feeling on top of the world and it’s ok if you have a day where you don’t feel ok. In some ways, this is part of being creative and embracing those feelings whether they are up or down and taking in what the world has to offer around you and applying it to your music” Townsend reveals.

As our interview draws to its end, Townsend extends his gratitude not only to Screamer Magazine for our time, but also to his fans. “I wouldn’t be allowed to do what I do if it wasn’t for the ongoing support from my fans and the media and I hope to continue to do this in the future at an even bigger level. One I can only dream of at this point.” It is safe to say that Townsend will achieve that and more and to anyone who has heard Empath, they can agree it is an affirmation of the great things to come. Fans can also look forward to news of the 4th part of Townsend’s career-spanning vinyl box-set series. ERAS Part 4 is set for release on August 23rd  2019, and features Ziltoid The Omniscient & Z² – Dark Matters, plus the vinyl debut of Ziltoid Live At The Royal Albert Hall & The Retinal Circus– across 9 pieces of 180g vinyl inside a sturdy 2-piece box set with an LP-booklet filled with liner notes and comments by Townsend himself.

For tour information, please visit www.hevydevy.com

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