Sunday 3 May 2015

Finding Light In The Darkness: Devin Townsend Interview

"When I first started writing Sky Blue it was nothing, it was just a bunch of shit because I was writing for other people.”

Things are quiet backstage; the only sounds to rise above the low volumes of Devin Townsend’s calm and collected Canadian dialect are the occasional coughs that burst out of his tour-worn lungs. His recent double album, ‘Z2’ has brought one of modern progressive music’s most prolific of minds to England’s shores once more, and it’s the more sorrowful and sombre half of the release that dictates our conversation. “It wasn’t until there was some death in my life that I found something that I felt about strongly enough about to write about. It wasn’t just the dying, it was the reacting to it: Do you let it stop you, do you let it kill your ability to articulate your vision by giving up? And all these sorts of thing, so I took the inspiration where I could and that’s always been the case.”

The room we sit in is small and bare, save for a couple of high backed chairs, a coffee table and an empty cupboard. Devin was engrossed watching something on his iPad as I entered the room.

“But,” he continues, stopping for a moment to let another cough escape his chest, its sound reverberating in the tiny room, “It’s hard for me to repeat that.” Tasked by the record label to emulate the unbridled success of ‘Epicloud’s’ progressive metal/pop pomp hybrid, Devin has made no effort to hide the fact that, in many ways, ‘Sky Blue’ was a forced record. He’s an honest man. When asked about anything to do with the business side of his work, he’s more than happy to hand you the looking glass. “Once you’ve made a statement about something you have to mine that vein further and further to get more information about it and that becomes increasingly more difficult.”

Some 20 years into his career, Devin finds himself in a bittersweet headlock. While that equates to two decades working his dream job, it is still very much a job, money must be made to keep the wheels turning to keep the dream from becoming just that once more, just like any other business and so, at times, that means taking on jobs where the financial benefits vastly outweighs any creative inclination. 

“On one hand this is very much a job for me. That requires things like playing through an illness or working away from home for extended periods of time. But I tend to separate my musical mind into three types of categories: One is my DTP kind of things with the lights, the famous guitars and the digital stuff, then there’s mellow stuff with the clean guitars and Telecasters which is cool too because it’s not connected to that other side of it. Then there’s bass guitar which I really love, I have a real passion for it because I’ve never played bass in a band professionally it’s separated from it all.

Having those outlets which are all very distinct, allows it to still be a passion, while still getting the job done. For this to still be a passion and something I really like to do when I’m at home relaxing on a Sunday evening is really great.”

So with the vision of an ‘Epicloud 2’ impregnated in his mind – not his own vision by all accounts, but one which, by accepting, gave him the creative freedom to pen a sequel to his emphatic Ziltoid saga in the process – he set to task. But how do you find inspiration from someone else’s desires?

“You have to find an angle,” he explains. “Luckily I had something on ‘Sky Blue’ that I felt strongly about, otherwise it would have not happened at all. I used ‘’Sky Blue’, just as I have done in the past in Strapping or whatever, as a way to work through certain thoughts and feelings and so, when I finished the record I’d exorcised those emotions. I therefore don’t feel the need to revisit those thoughts so when people ask me to repeat things; fundamentally, it’s something I’m not interested in. “It wasn’t even the death that inspired the record; the things that I write about are so specific that, if you’re on the same channel as I was when I was writing it then I think it should work perfectly. It should be ‘oh that’s why it sounds this way,’ or ‘that’s why that song ends like that.’ But if you’re not on that channel and you want it to be another ‘Epicloud’ then it’s gonna come up short every time, that’s another channel altogether. ‘Sky Blue’ was one that was tinged with sadness, it was washed out at points but there was also a sense of not letting those heavy emotions destroy you. And that’s where the ultimate theme of the record comes together. There are elements to ‘Sky Blue’ that are stylistically similar to ‘Epicloud’ but it’s a completely defiant frame of mind. ‘Sky Blue’ is a real punishing record, but it ends in a way that’s hopeful.   

“The writing process for me is rooted in emotional responses and reactions to life. You’re always going to find things to write about if you take that view because everything changes. It just depends how much of your energy you wanna invest in those situations.”  

On the flipside however – and with Devin’s struggles with his bi-polar disorder hardly swept under the carpet, such is the openness and honesty of this man – what happens when your emotions simply cannot respond to an event, be that a death, a break up, a ghost from the past re-emerging when you weren’t in the right frame of mind to handle the drama of it all?

What does Devin Townsend do, as I was at the point in time where our conversation took place, when the emotions you want to channel into a musical exorcism or cleansing sucks the life out of you instead?

“I let it suck the life out of me until I feel like writing again. Sometimes it’s a year, sometimes it’s two years but I find that’s the only honest way to do it. Part of that involves realising that you are never not going to be an artist. Sometimes you think your creativity has gone away, that it’s never gonna come back and that your gonna be selling shoes for the rest of your life or whatever but it always comes back. You have to establish a faith in yourself that the motivations that drive your art are subconscious and when the appropriate time for them to resurface arrives it will. Don’t force it.  If you feel like not writing then that’s exactly what you need to do. "Step away from it or play a different instrument. If I’m stuck on an idea I’ll pick up the bass or wire up an amplifier, something that’s connected to music that doesn’t involve beating myself up for not being able to do it.”

The paradox the creative mind finds itself in can be crushing. Being creative and making art – be it  Devin with his music or myself with my writing – is what pays the bills, but it’s not as easy as flicking a switch at 9am every morning, letting the cogs turn and the magic happen before switching it back off at 5pm and heading back home. There can be times when, afflicted with particular feelings – and certain, uncomfortable emotions stalked and embroiled me in the days surrounding this conversation – when creativity just cannot happen. But when that happens, the world isn’t kind enough to stop turning for a few days while you get your head back in the game. Stepping away from the desk, guitar or whatever might work in some ways, but the bills still need to be paid. Work still needs to be produced. So, with ‘Sky Blue’, Devin was forcing a record to happen when his head and heart were elsewhere. He got lucky, by his own admittance. From out of a dark period in his life, he saw the flicker of inspiration ahead.

At first, ‘Sky Blue’, to me, was a good record, but it wasn’t anything special. It was only when I had subconsciously drifted onto the wavelength the record was written in that it clicked and the magic pertained within its polished musicality but emotive rawness crawled out from underneath. Now, as those final, triumphant and hopeful chords of ‘The Ones We Love’ fade out, leaving the tippy tap of my keyboards to be the only sound I can hear – beside the ever present gargoyles in my head of course – I can say, with complete and utter conviction that ‘Sky Blue’ is an immensely powerful and gorgeous release.    

Says Townsend: “For me, I don’t have any inclination to not write. Sometimes you have to stop writing for a while like I said, but every time I stop writing this unhealthy backlog of material builds up in my head. So I keep writing and always probably will because my process is just to write about where I am in that moment. And now that I’m in a situation where I can play the songs I wanna play alongside musicians that make my visions work consistently, it’s a real joy. I now find myself in a situation where, not only is this my job but it’s a job that I really, really enjoy.”

Words: Phil Weller