Devin Townsend: “I’m a pretty tranquil person, but that’s mixed with a constant undercurrent of anxiety and intensity”

Devin Townsend
(Image credit: Paul Harries)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past three years, it’s that everyone dealt with the pandemic in their own ways. Some artists wandered deep into the void and made their darkest records yet; some chose to embrace the calm and unlock their inner zen; some leaned into the chaos, or went ultra-pop as a form of escapism, or ignored the shifts in mood entirely, or chose not to make new records at all. Ever the man of a million thoughts, Devin Townsend couldn’t settle for just one option.

The omnipotent prog-metaller wrote hundreds of songs over the COVID era, siphoning material into different categories. The more chaotic songs were bundled into The Puzzle, while those a little more serene went into Snuggles. Both albums arrived last December, accompanied by films (and in the former’s case, a graphic novel), paving the way for one of Townsend’s all-time biggest musical epics: Lightwork. Coupled with an ancillary album of B-sides titled Nightwork, the ten-track opus follows Townsend on a sprawling journey through sound, as effervescent as it is profound.

With his sights set on touring it all throughout 2023, Australian Guitar caught up with Townsend to explore the mind-bending radiance of Lightwork.

What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing these songs?
That I didn’t have my shit together as much as I presented myself to. And I think that was really important for me, because I think that in a vacuum, it’s easy for us to to be all of these things that we’d like to be when everything’s okay – when there’s no war, no pandemic, no financial issues or health issues, or people suffering to certain degrees… It’s easy at that point to present yourself as this idealised version of what you’d like to be. But over the past two years, I’ve really had to come to terms with the fact that who I actually am is a lot less like that. 

In certain scenarios, I reacted in ways that were surprising to me both in positive and negative ways. And for a while there, I was a little bummed. I was like, “Man, I wish I was more balanced than I clearly am.” But by the end of it, I was actually really thankful for that. Because to actually be honest with yourself is a real gift in a lot of ways. And how that manifested for me was just being a little easier on myself. Because for so many years, I’ve been a real perfectionist and really disciplined, but only on the surface – underneath, I was really hard on myself about a lot of things. 

But I’ve sort of made peace with that, like, “Dude, you are who you are, and you are where you are… And that’s cool.” It was really inspiring, but also kind of humbling in a way. It was good for me though, ultimately, to see myself for who I am as opposed to who I thought I was.

Do you find songwriting to be a helpful tool in helping you navigate the labyrinth that is your mind?
It’s a coping mechanism, for sure. I think it’s only recently that I recognised that function – and maybe a part of that [realisation] came from the Lightwork record. So much of what I do on social media, prior to releasing a record, is make apologies for it. Maybe there was part of me that was still attached to the fact that there’s a certain faction [of followers] out there who want me to be what I was in the past – whether that’s Strapping [Young Lad] or Empath or Deconstruction or Ocean Machine… 

I was always confused as to why I couldn’t maintain a degree of consistency throughout the records. But the things that inspire me and compel me [to write music] always seem to be so connected to what’s currently going on in my world. I always felt guilty because I’ve got an audience that has been super supportive, and I’m thinking, “Oh, it’s not like it was.” But then I think: perhaps the biggest thing I’ve got going for me as artistic collateral is less about consistency, or being heavy, or being this or that or some other thing, but more that it’s like… I’ve got no choice but to follow these things wherever they want to go. 

Once I started recognising that pattern, I was like, “Dude, why are you always apologising for this shit? You did your best!” And that’s the criteria that this art needs to have, above all other things. If I can truly say that I did my best, and I managed to create something that, in my mind, represents something that was important to me – that maybe other people can participate in – then we’re good. And to the people that want it to be something other than what it is… I mean, that sounds like a “you” problem. 

I think moreso with this album than ever, you’ve really mastered this equilibrium of energy and melancholy, where any one song can sound intense, but at the same time almost tranquil. How did you crack that?
I think you’re just tied to your nature, you know? It’s the same reason why dogs are weirded out by me and cats like me. I think I’m a pretty tranquil person, but [that tranquility] is mixed with this constant undercurrent of anxiety or intensity. And I think making peace with that was a big part of it. 

Going back to the personal revelations: I think it’s easy to chastise ourselves for not being what we’d like to be. Like, I’d love to be just totally zenned out, but I’m clearly not, right? I’ve clearly got lots of things going on in [my mind] that create this weird kind of thing. But I’m at peace with that. It’s okay to be chill, but also not chill. And so, as a reaction to who I am at any period in time, I don’t think about music at all – I just write. And there’s a guitar next to me right now, there are guitars on the wall over there… I’m always writing, and as a result of that, my songs go hand-in-hand with whatever’s going on.

Reading through the list of people you worked with on The Puzzle and Snuggles, it’s like a playbill of incredible guitarists, from Steve Vai to Plini to Markus Reuter… Did you link up with many heavy-hitters on Lightwork?
Mike Keneally played on Lightwork because I love the guy and he’s a good buddy, and I love the fact that he’s always down to play a solo. I’m a good guitar player, I think, I rarely want to play solos. I think that part of doing interviews, and having done this for so long, is that you’re always subject to the scrutiny of others, and people are able to assume that things like [not wanting to play solos] are indicative of a certain personality trait. Like, throughout the years – especially when I was less secure in myself than I am now – people would say, “Well, the reason why you don’t like playing solos is because you feel self-conscious.”

For a while there, I was like, “I wonder if that’s it.” But I think it might be more simple than that. It’s just like, “No, I just don’t really want to play solos.” That’s it, right? And it’s not like I won’t – look at Deconstruction, I played tonnes of solos all over that record – but I only play them when it feels important. And then if there’s a section that I feel needs a solo, and when I try it I’m just bored of everything I do, I’m fortunate to have all these really incredible players in my world. I can just call someone up and be like, “Man, I can’t come up with anything that doesn’t piss me off here. Could you try?”

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…