INTERVIEW with Devin Townsend

Interview by: Brian Cross | Photos By: Diana Guay

Before his performance before a massive crowd at the Worcester Palladium on October 29, 2010, we were able to get in some question and answer time with Devin Townsend. The legendary musician behind such acts as Strapping Young Lad and the Devin Townsend Band waxed philosophical on the new Project tour, the energy of dance pop, and, of course…all things Ziltoid.

MPJ – Can you give us a brief rundown of the Devin Townsend Project, and how it applies to live shows?

DEVIN TOWNSEND – DTB (The Devin Townsend Band) had some things about it that I really liked, and so did Strapping Young Lad, but neither of them really filled it all up. This is technically the fourth tour I’ve done with this project, but there’s still a learning curve that we’re engaged in. I think what I ultimately want to achieve in terms of live performance is more suited to the solo material than Strapping, because Strapping is quite literally ten percent of my emotional makeup. The problem with it was that while you can justify a lot of things as catharsis, after a while, if your job is throwing a tantrum and you’re not really in the mood for it, I think it becomes really detrimental to your health.

MPJ – How has the touring been?

DEVIN – It’s excellent! This tour is –

(interrupted by echoing shouts and singing)

DEVIN – That’s TesseracT warming up! (everyone laughs) This tour is made to give people who are responsible for funding it the impression of whether it’s going to work. When we first came out, they had no idea what to expect in terms of attendance and reaction, but it’s been very good, in all honesty. It has exceeded the expectations of everybody involved. New York last night, at the Gramercy? That was one of the best shows! A lot of the people that needed to see it in that light were there. The VIP meet-and-greets that I do every day definitely help fund it, because the tour is not really a high-grossing tour. But for the people who enjoy the music, I’ve gotten past that phobia of mine of other people; humans, right? (laughs) To be able to connect with people who like it and share that is awesome. Life tends to be pretty dire most of the time for most of us, so to be able to have a collection of people that get together to have fun? I’m cool with being the emcee of that, in all honesty. I really want people to be able to enjoy themselves, and I really want to present a bunch of different emotions, from really quiet for the VIP events to really loud like [the upcoming album] Deconstruction or Ziltoid [the Omniscient], to poppy like Addicted or Ocean Machine, and ultimately just give people a cool night out and something that lets you have a good time for once.

MPJ – You famously gave up touring a few years ago, but after the releases of Ki and Addicted, you’ve jumped back into the deep end. Why the change of heart?

DEVIN – Well, I quit smoking weed and I quit drinking, and I think that a lot of my paranoia came from both of those things. I had been thinking, “Oh my God, everybody in the world is different than me, everything is separate!” Then all of a sudden, you have a kid, and you have to start engaging reality. It’s like, “Oh, really? Everybody’s pretty similar!” I think with the Internet and everything as well, there’s a sense that because there’s no real interaction a lot of times between people anymore; the tendency to become paranoid or frightened of other people is more rampant than I expected. And then when actually you get face to face with people who enjoy the music, you realize that the reason people do enjoy it is because we have a lot of things in common. As humans, there’s not a lot of emotions, right? Ten or twelve of them, and you’ve pretty much got it covered. I’m hoping to get ten or twelve records out of all of those, and then make a show that can be taken to a lot of places.

MPJ – Anneke van Giersbergen (Agua de Annique, ex-The Gathering) was a notable guest star on Addicted. How do you handle performing songs from that album live without her? Are there any other challenges to performing live, since much of your music uses harmonized vocals and such?

DEVIN – The ultimate goal for this, which I can’t afford right now, because we’re running on a shoestring budget…I want a choir! I want an orchestra! I want flying elephants, and helicopters landing and distributing pizzas! I want it to be epic. So until that time, I’ve put a lot of those vocals, like the Anneke stuff, on tape. I can’t afford to fly her over right now, so I put her on tape. Some people have said, “There so much of this stuff on tape!” But honestly, it’s a footnote. It’s supposed to be a placeholder for when I finally get my choir and stuff! Like tonight, we’ll do “[Bend it Like] Bender!” and Anneke will be singing the chorus…virtually! (laughs) I just want it to be cool and I want it to sound right. At this point, there’s no option to have a choir or have Anneke come over for the tour, so you do you what you can. Ultimately, it’s a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned.

MPJ – You recently converted Ziltoid for use with the Rock Band video games, complete with new voice clips for the eponymous alien. How did that come about?

DEVIN – Somebody just came up to the management and said, “Hey, we’re interested in seeing if you want to do Ziltoid, or any other songs for Rock Band.” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do Ziltoid!” The mix is fairly easy for me to put together; the amount of effort isn’t huge, it’s like two or three days’ work. I just decided to go for it, and they were the first people to really present their services in terms of authoring it. Ziltoid is a project that’s just starting, in my opinion. Where it chooses to go in the future will depend on financing, what happens in my professional career, and if I have time. But I’ve love to take Ziltoid to some pretty overwhelming places, like his own TV show! (everyone laughs) Or his own comic book, or whatever. I’ve got a bunch of plans for him, but the phone’s not exactly ringing off the hook for Ziltoid yet. (laughs) Until that time, you do what you can!

MPJ – Can you give us an example of Ziltoid himself verbally abusing the Rock Band player?

DEVIN – The dialogue on the Ziltoid record is just him talking about whatever it is he’s talking about, so I just changed it to him trying to figure out what people’s motivations for playing Rock Band are. (in Ziltoid’s voice) “Why are you doing this?! It’s a piece of plastic!” (everyone laughs) “What are you going to play around the campfire, you hippie?!” (everyone laughs again) Basically, if you make it to “The Greys” at the end of the record, he dubiously agrees that it’ll be worth it. But he only agrees because he thinks that if it sells, he’ll make a lot of money! (everyone laughs again) But it’s not me, it’s Ziltoid!

MPJ – How did you create the character of Ziltoid?

DEVIN – My wife had a baby…and I had one, too! (laughs) Hers was substantially better looking than mine. (everyone laughs) Mine ended up being this green freak that is cantankerous and arrogant. Honestly, it was like a projection. When I finished my marijuana days or whatever, I found that as a metaphor, Ziltoid worked well for me because he’s a character that really needs validation. I think that when you’re in bands and in magazines and all that sort of shit, there’s this element where if you’re not careful, you can invest a lot of your personality into what you do. Your self worth becomes entirely based on positive reviews or negative reviews, or exposure, or what other people’s validation of you is. But then all of a sudden you have a baby, or you get older, and that other stuff is no longer really important. When shit goes down with your family, or there’s a disaster, none of that other stuff counts for anything. Who do you want beside you in a zombie attack? Do you want your buddy who can lift things, or do you want Axl Rose who is going to complain about everything? So I think that Ziltoid is the projection of that part, that ego. “No, no, no! It’s all about me! I’m the master of the universe!” But everyone else is like “Well, I don’t know about that.” And he says, “No, for sure! I’m from another planet!” But in the end, actually…“You’re a puppet. So good luck with that!”

MPJ – Any word on Ziltoid 2?

DEVIN – Basically, at the end of the Tuska [Open Air Metal] Festival [in Finland] that we did, Ziltoid gets relegated to the second dimension, which is a comic book, because he arrogantly assumed that all of the people were there to see him. It wasn’t just a festival; he was sure that all of those people were gathered just for him, and it went to his head. So, his fourth dimensional capabilities got taken away by aliens, and now he’s stuck in a comic book. And in that comic book, he’s able to exorcise a bunch of these demons by making himself a harem. He has seven thousand exploding elephants, he destroys worlds…but ultimately, it leaves him empty, so he starts to meditate. And in the end, he decides that everything is Ziltoid. So Z2 is…”everything is Ziltoid!” He hasn’t told me too much more about it. (everyone laughs)

MPJ – What was your experience working within Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon, Star One)? Would you work with him again?

DEVIN – I don’t think there’s any need to, really. I think he’s a really talented dude. I got an email from him talking about the record (Ayreon’s The Human Equation), but at first I didn’t really want to do it. It’s not that I had anything against it, but I do get a lot of offers to either sing or produce. It’s like Pandora’s Box: if you do one of them… (laughs) But he was persistent, and I said “Okay, I’ll do it, if you let me do my own thing. You send me your music, and I’ll do my own thing to it. If you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, then just don’t use it.” And that was it! But then I just put it off and put it off; it takes me a long time to “hear” something. I just didn’t hear anything at first; was it going to be like this, and kind of layered, or whatever? But then I finally did it, and I just sent it to him. But I never met him! I’m sure I’d know him if I saw him; he’s probably a huge guy with a lot of hair, right? (laughs) But that was it; my interactions with him were strictly email.

MPJ – Are there any other musicians you’d love to collaborate with?

DEVIN – I’m sure! But none that are a burning desire. If something is meant to happen, I honestly think that in music, it’s going to. You pursue the things that you get opportunities to pursue, but I’m definitely not going to chase someone down to convince them to work with me. Even if I was going to do that, I wouldn’t even know where to start! Björk, maybe? Or Mike Patton? Both of whom would just be like, “No!” (everyone laughs)

MPJ – Your work has spanned many genres of music; when can we expect a hip hop album?

DEVIN – It wouldn’t be hip hop, but it would definitely be like pop or R&B. I love female vocalists singing pop music. “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé is a brilliant song as far as I’m concerned! Love it! I love Vengaboys, I love all of that cheesy ’90s techno. I love dance music. Something that doesn’t impose itself on you emotionally, but makes you move. And I can’t dance, but I’ll do it! If you get energy in a room and you get a bunch of people feeling the same thing based on a cool melody or a cool rhythm…I think that the energy, regardless of the music, is just awesome! You go to the World Cup? Same thing. A lot of people feeling the same thing. I love that energy!

MPJ – Other than the human experience, is there anything outside of the music sphere that influences what you do?

DEVIN – Fuck, man, very little in the music sphere influences what I do! (everyone laughs) It’s all external stuff. I’ve been married for twenty years, I’ve got to mow the lawn, our garage is a mess, I’ve got my family, I’ve got my mum and dad, relatives that are bananas, I like watching TV in my underpants with my wife… (everyone laughs) I make really bad furniture, I mean, most of my life is –

(more howling from TesseracT in the background)

DEVIN – He stubbed his toe, it’s okay. (everyone laughs) Most of my life is spent just…living. The musical end of it? Shit, my job takes up a lot of time, but really, the influence that makes the music real is life.

MPJ – Can you give us a brief description of your songwriting process?

DEVIN – I’ll spend a week taking the kid to school. I’ll go and make sure my folks are alright. I’ll go down to the beach a lot and collect weird pieces of driftwood to make shitty furniture. I’ll fix the drain. I’ll make sure we’ve got money coming in. I’ll record some music. Blah blah blah, all of that stuff. Life, right? And then maybe once every two weeks I’ll get like a three- or four-hour period where I can just sit with my guitar and just jam out. By that time, I’ve collected enough experiences over the weeks and months prior to it that I’m like, “Okay, this group of notes that my fingers kind of landed on remind me of that. And now, this song is officially about that.” I end up writing about it in one fell swoop, and then it’s done.

MPJ – For the remastered release of Strapping Young Lad’s debut album Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing, you had session drummers record live drum tracks to replace the previous programmed ones. Would you ever considering remastering or remixing any more of your previous material? For example, Synchestra without compression?

DEVIN – Maybe. I’ve got some of the files, but not all of them, because we had a big flood a while back and lost a bunch of shit. But I’ve got so much stuff I’m doing now that the idea of going back is almost like a waste of time in some ways. Eventually? Yeah, for sure, but right now, no. And if I do, I’ll probably just rerecord it, but not the whole record; just the songs that mean something to me.

MPJ – What can you tell us about the upcoming Deconstruction and Ghost, the final two albums of the Devin Townsend Project?

DEVIN – Ghost is finished, and it’s very beautiful in my opinion. Deconstruction I start the day after I get home from this tour, and it’s very heavy. With Deconstruction, I’m trying to reconnect with the Strapping Young Lad-type energy in a lot of ways, but keep it controlled so there’s a dynamic to it, and have an overall show that does something specific. This band is my best hope for that, in all honesty; it’s a bunch of close friends, and I think we’ve got the potential to do anything that I need. They’ll both come out together, sometime in March, I’d say. I hope you enjoy it, man!

MPJ – Do you (or Ziltoid) have any final words for your fans?

DEVIN – Ziltoid doesn’t; he doesn’t think about that at all, he’s too arrogant. But from me…have a nice day! (everyone laughs)

MPJ – Awesome! Thanks very much for your time, Devin!


For more information on:




“Bend It Like Bender!” – The Devin Townsend Project :

Ziltoid, The Omniscient:

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2 Responses to “INTERVIEW with Devin Townsend”

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  2. […] Also check out the the Devin Townsend Interview. […]

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