Devin Townsend just might be the greatest guitarist on the planet! As a child he was teethed learning his art. He has an interesting voice: very high-pitched vibrato not unlike David Surkamp of Pavlov’s Dog(as he’s no doubt sick of hearing). At dynamic peaks in the music, he breaks into high “castrat shrieks” and yelps like a throttled blackbird clamped to the PA. system. At times, Townsend hits notes that would even make Freddie Mercury resurrected from the dead.
He combines powerful rock histrionics with an incredible “compositional” sense. More suited to a classical musician. Devin Townsend has the chops and ability to switch into a jazz/ progressive-like improvisational mode at any time. Yes, he’s that good! His “quah” is as discerning as it is compelling.
Every performance, regardless of city, Townsend treats his fans as if he’s playing to his hometown. It’s a battalion of “air-guitarist” pretending to play the guitar and giving power salutes at the end of each number. Devin seem to take notice of them despite their obvious enthusiasm, if not fanaticism.
Devin Townsend doesn’t allow himself to get too haughty about his trade. From the very beginning he wanted to be the best musician he could be. Intrinsically, he would always push himself and it’s been a natural evolution at that. It’s not so much about the lifestyle as it is about wanting to be good and beyond that, wanting to be a human being that cares about a lot of things in life. It’s a whole picture. It’s not just being rock star in a rock band. I believe he had a good foundation growing up that just seemed natural. With that said, I think it’s a little bit of a Canadian thing.
I had the chance to interview Townsend where he opened up his heart about his life…
Rock Bands of L.A.com: You’re from Vancouver, CAN… One of the prettiest cities in the world.. What was it like growing up there? Is there this bit of intrinsic Canadian pride? Could it be a bit “Anti-American? What’s your musical background.. classical music… orchestra… etc etc.? What influenced you the most?
Devin Townsend: The best thing I can say about Vancouver in terms to my creative process is it’s such a gloomy environment for most of the year.. I found that’s its played into my work in every part of my work in every way!. In fact, I lived in L.A. in two separate occasions and because of the weather I had to leave. Don’t get me wrong… its beautiful there but while growing up here in Vancouver with the mist and the mountains and the trees. Without that I don’t feel as inspired in the same way.. It enables me to articulate emotions in relation to my environment….As far as Canadian pride… I’ve traveled enough so I think that nationalism of any sort is ridiculous. I think you are part of your culture just by default.. After you’ve been to a lot of places you make friendships with people from all over the world. I don’t think there’s much that remains that’s intrinsically Canadian.
For me when I’m in America, which is often…I find two things frustrating…. First, when people assume that people are their culture.. the people in my life, other than my wife and family. My best friends are American there’s no separation because of that. People are people! Conversely, when people assume you’re from Canada … you drive around in a moose or to your igloo (laugh).. there are those cultural biases. I can do without. We’re all trying to bring food to our families.
As far as the music I grew up with..My connection to music was slightly different than a lot of people.. The technical and theory skills are rudimentary. It’s not that I don’t have theoretical knowledge…I’ve only learned enough of it so I can communicate with people who read and write music. I deal more in being instinct based.
Rock Bands of L.A.com: How many albums have you recorded? Over 23 studio albums and 3 live albums?… How do you remember how to play them? Ever thought about using a teleprompter?
Devin Townsend: Well, I don’t! When we have to dig deep in the back catalogue I need to re-learn it.. I don’t remember a thing… As far as the lyrics I have a system with phrase association cheat sheets. I would love a teleprompter… that would be great ! Realistically a teleprompter is just not feasible at this time. Its not really a big deal to me.
Rock Bands of L.A.com: You’re a “Godzilla” at the guitar!!! Maybe the best I’ve ever heard! But how did you learn to sing the way you do? There’s a bit of “operatic” overtones. How did you train yourself to sing this way? Are you ever afraid of losing your voice? Did you listen to a lot of Freddie Mercury records?
Devin Townsend: I had a choir teacher in high school and he taught me the fundementals.. Singing from the diaphragm, breathe, falsetto chest tone and other basic singing skills. But anything like screaming or vibrato holding notes or pitch; these are all things I’ve learned from trial and error. When I was singing for Steve Vai I was working with Roger Love.. a vocal teacher and he became frustrated with me.. he predicted I’d lose my voice..Its been 27 years and I haven’t lost my voice!
I never was much of a Queen fan.. Things like the “Star Wars” soundtrack and Euro-pop interest me more. When I first listened to the band Slade and their hit , “Run Runaway” from there I got into classic “ Metal”… Iron Maiden.. Judas Priest.. But as a teenager I got into ..“New Age”.. but the more of the “dark” artist… Then it was bands like Fear Factory and Carcass and Napalm Death that interest me… and that style is what piqued my attention.. The band, Grotus from San Francisco.. was a band that I was into..
Rock Bands of L.A.com:While preparing my queries for this interview you mentioned that you were taking anti-depressants in the past. You speak freely about being bi-polar… what cured you? Is anyone ever really cured? Its dispensed like candy here in Hollywood. Is depression the stimulus for making great music? How did this affect your music? Do you think you’re too critical/hard on yourself?
Devin Townsend: I think what happened to me was I had some crazy experiences as a kid. I was insecure. All these things seemed to just go to my head. Then I started doing drugs… As a teen I was experimenting with LSD. Never into the hard stuff…What started happening was the culmination of all these things… being insecure… I made so many personal errors.. Social. relations and friendship that I went off the deep end. Doctors diagnosed me as being Bi-polar and I was sent to a psychiatric institution for about 3 or 4 months. The culmination of all this made me think this all happened because I was arrogant, confused and always stoned. Perhaps the doctors misdiagnosed me? I was prescribed anti-psychotic medication and it really helped! I realized the irrational ways I was dealing with my life! It all was so diluted. Eleven years later I went to a psychiatrist and asked if I am in fact bi-polar, my hands are up! If so, I want you to help me get off these anti-psychotic drugs. Work with me weekly.. monitor my situation. If at any point I regress and display any criteria that matches these mental aberrations then I’ll go back on these drugs. If not I just I’ll certainly get back on these drugs. If not, then I’ll accept I had made a bunch of mistakes. He reluctantly agreed and I visited him once or twice a week for a year as I came off these drugs. It’s been about a decade and signs point that I got my shit together. I don’t endorse people going off their medication without being monitored.
Rock Bands of L.A.com: Casualties of Cool! Brilliant album!!! A Canadian making an Americana album!!! What propagated this project? It sounds so much like Robert Plant’s latest albums…. I hear this concept is going to be resurrected? At times it sounds like a haunted Johnny Cash.
Devin Townsend: I got my inspiration for this project from the album, “Raising Sand”by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.. Also, I was into the soundtrack to the film, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”. I wanted to make the sound seem haunted with all the reverb and special effects… My collaboration with Che’ Aimee Dorval is one of my favorite albums I’ve worked on. It turned into a real sweet relationship. It manifested itself in so many ways. Currently Che’ is working on a bunch of projects. More than anything else even though it appears I’m very prolific because I have so many records but the way they manifest itself may take a 10 year period. I’m doing many different projects at the same time. I’m in contact with Che’ practically every day and I’ve toyed around with a few ideas…At this time it hasn’t got past the “schematic”stage. I’m actually working on four projects currently. I find when I listen to music now I’m pretty choosy…There’s only certain things I want to hear now. I don’t want to hear things that I’m already doing. Usually I don’t want to hear any vocals.
Rock Bands of L.A.com: Have you ever been approached to do movie soundtracks?
Devin Townsend: Never… I think that I’d like to… but at the same time I was approached years back to do the music for a video game.. I work best when no one tells me what to do or rushes me.. I’d be open in doing a movie that I was interested in… Movies about zombies or super heroes just doesn’t interest me enough. I already don’t have enough time to do what I’m doing now. It would be nice to consider something that makes sense… If a film project could make money to pay for my other work … that would be cool!
Rock Bands of L.A.com: You’ve been critical of the state of the record business.. Have you been fucked over? What do you think of the streaming services.. ie AppleMusic and Spotify..???
Devin Townsend: I just don’t think you can fight it…I think as opposed to being that things have changed..Honestly, what are you going to do? I listen to Spotify all day and night..Who am I to be critical of it? As a music fan.. it’s a god send… A new record comes out and I can hear it at my leisure.. especially my music… As long as I can do what I do and not stress about money I’m down with that…
I want to thank Devin Townsend and Amanda Cagan for making this interview happen…
Slider photo courtesy of Tom Hawkins
Devin will be on tour starting later this month…
Check out his web site to find dates near you..