As a guitarist, singer, musician and composer, Devin Townsend has done and seen it all.
After starting out in the early 1990s as the singer in Steve Vai’s band, Townsend then went on to form the band Strapping Young Lad, releasing five albums between 1995 and 2006. After that band was dissolved, Townsend went on to form the Devin Townsend Project, releasing a series of four individual albums of different moods. The first two albums, Ki and Addicted were released in 2009. The final two albums in the series, Deconstruction and Ghost, were released back in June.
In addition to releasing two full studio albums this year, Townsend is going to be on tour in the US in October and Europe in November. On the tour, Townsend plans on playing some of the albums in their entirety to be recorded for an upcoming box set.
Guitar World recently caught up with Townsend to talk about his recent albums, the writing process and his future plans.
GUITAR WORLD: You released two albums this year (Deconstruction and Ghost) on the same date. Was there ever any thought of releasing them as a double album or did you always plan on the two separate releases?
The whole "Devin Townsend Project" is four records. Originally, it was a theme I was hoping to fit onto a single disc. It just seemed like this particular period of my career would be best spent trying to represent myself as somebody who does a lot of different things, and the versatility of it became the goal to represent. I think the best way I decided to do that was to split it up into four very distinct categories. Originally it was going to be all done within a year-and-a-half period, but then the touring came and it just sort of ended up expanding over a two-and-a-half, three-year period. So Deconstruction and Ghost were the last three and four, and now that it’s done, I hope to be able to make future music that hopefully just merges it into a smaller amount of records. (laughs)
Was the idea of releasing two vastly different albums more to represent your interest in different styles or were you trying to appeal to fans of each style independently?
Yeah, I think with Strapping Young Lad, and what I’ve done in the past, it’s very obviously and understandably put me into this category of being this heavy metal guy and all that. Definitely enjoy that, like no question, right? I think a lot of the reasons why, at the end of my contract with Strapping Young Lad, I disbanded it is, what I hope to do in the future is make real theatrical and orchestral music on one hand and then very subtle sort of clean guitar- and bass-oriented sort of other music. Having just that outlet, that was becoming more and more popular just started to become a little worrisome in terms of being able to represent that when I’m 40 (laughs) and onward.
I listened to Ghost first and then Deconstruction. It’s a big change, style-wise. Did you record the albums one at a time or different songs at different times?
Well, I kind of mixed it up. When it came to the actual brass tacks of completing each record, it was definitely one at a time. During the writing of it, I find that one thing to the exclusion of everything else just ends up becoming very tiresome. That goes both ways, so there’d be a moment, for example, when I was working on a song for Deconstruction, like "Pandemic" or some such thing. I remember looking at the computer screen, going "You know what? I just totally don’t want to hear this type of thing right now." I’d pick up an acoustic guitar and start strumming away.
Some of the music and instrumentation on Ghost sounds like it could be in a movie. "Juular" on Deconstruction has a little bit of a Danny Elfman kind of vibe going on. Were you influenced by any composers during the writing/recording of the record?
Well, I think the thing is I’ve been looking for an opportunity to write for movies and compose for musicals. I was so into the whole Andrew Lloyd Webber type of thing when I was kid, listening to the Star Wars soundtracks and things like that. But again, I think a lot of my move away from Strapping Young Lad and those types of scenarios has a lot to do with my future goal of being able to represent myself as someone who’s capable of writing for movies or musicals or whatever.
Did you write out the music for the more orchestral sounding parts or did you bring in people to help compose parts for those songs?
Yeah, I wrote it all The thing is, and I think it’s a blessing one way, is that I’m not theoretically knowledgeable. I’ve been in open C tuning for so many years, and that’s my main writing instrument, of course, the guitar. In Pro Tools what I’ll do is write a song and go, "OK, the melody goes like this and then the trumpets would do this and then the choir would do this."
And so I sketch it out and then I send it to people who are friends of mine who listen to it and say, "OK, well there’s a G and there’s a B and then the choir’s doing this and I notice you’ve got a low voice here and that’ll be the bass," and they orchestrate it for the people in the orchestra and choirs that do read music. Because if I had sent them, the orchestra and choir, what I think it would look like on paper, it would look like hieroglyphics. (laughs)
There’s a lot of multi-instrumentation on Ghost. How many actual instruments are you playing on the record(s)?
Well, everything really. I think I’ve been playing bass for as long as I’ve played guitar, and I love them both. I’m sitting here talking to you with a Tele in my hand and a half an hour before I was thumping away on a fretless. Both those instrument and voice are my main compositional tools, I suppose. I play keyboards and Pro Tools, if you want to look at it as an instrument. As a drummer, I’m rhythmically so disabled that it’s hilarious. I’ve got one-way independence. (laughs)
The albums have completely different moods. When you were recording them, did you try for different tones and sounds through different gear for each record, or did you just try to get different sounds out of the same gear?
I think a lot of the fun of making records, for me, is making each one of them a situation. For example, with Ghost, I found a group of people that had an energy together and we kind of did it in a cabin somewhere. I thought, "For this I want to use an acoustic, and what types of acoustics do I want to use?" or "What sort of effects do I want to use?" With Ki, it was very much the same thing. "Well, I hear a real clean guitar" and that ultimately led me to this old basement and this '57 Twin that was really cool. Then all of a sudden to get those certain types of delay, it led me to like a tape echo and single-coil, low-output pickups and all that. Each record has its own sort of rabbit hole that I think is a lot of fun to follow and defines a lot of energy of the record.
I read that you’re going to be performing all four albums live over in Europe later this year. Have you had to work out any technical issues with performing such complex albums in a live setting?
The guitar thing is one thing. It’s like four separate bands, and the visuals and the sound and budget constraints and all this sort of stuff. Without me making it sound like the drama that it actually is, man, it’s a nightmare.
As I was listening to it, I was thinking, "I don’t know how he’s going to pull this off live."
Nor do I, in all honesty. (laughs)
Besides the recording of the concerts, can you say what else you plan on including in your upcoming box set?
Well, the box set is just finished. It’s a 70-page hardcover book and it’s the size of an LP. It’s got eight discs in it. It’s got the four Devin Townsend Project discs; Ki,Addicted, Deconstruction and Ghost. Plus four additional discs with bonus tracks, demos, live concert footage, all the videos, production commentaries, Pro Tools sessions for people to remix. It’s a pretty comprehensive overview.
I’ve been kind of hacking away in sort of quasi-obscurity for so long that I’m hoping this box set at least shows and all these DVDs and this stuff will allow me to kind of be able to step out of that box a little bit. Because what I’m hoping to do in the future is to make unrelenting, uncompromising, emotional music of all sorts with complete disregard to whatever is commercially successful. Except in my little fantasy world here, it’s done with the same sort of production values as an Ashlee Simpson concert (laughs). Regardless of whether or not that comes to fruition, it’s good to have goals.