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'Life is Chaos, But I Won't Give Up if You Don't': Devin Townsend on the Life-Affirming 'Empath'

Monday, 25 March 2019 Written by Alec Chillingworth

Photo: Tanya Ghosh

Murphy, the patterdale terrier, just barked inside. He’s a good dog, but he knows he shouldn’t bark inside.

“Mine do the same thing, man,” Devin Townsend says along the line. “We have two dogs, Emily and Oliver—they’re little farting hams on chopsticks. My wife wanted something small and I wanted something disgusting. We both got what we wanted.”

Given that Townsend has something of a reputation as a workaholic, it’s refreshing to hear him talk about ‘life stuff’. Since catapulting to fame as Steve Vai’s singer in 1993, he has engineered the success of industrial/death/insert-nasty-subgenre metal band Strapping Young Lad, balancing it with a diverse and critically revered solo career as well as two albums under the Devin Townsend Band name.

After Strapping Young Lad’s disintegration in 2007, there was a brief pause following the birth of his son. But, two years later, he was back at it with the Devin Townsend Project. His most commercially—and, in some cases, musically—fruitful venture yet, the DTP’s self-branded ‘lower mid tier prog metal’ unlocked new doors for the multi-instrumentalist. Highlights included selling out London’s famed Royal Albert Hall, flanked by giant farting ballbags, winning one of Canada’s coveted Juno Awards, and playing a knackered ancient theatre in Bulgaria with an orchestra.

The latter went down in September 2017, and was somewhat bittersweet. On the outside, it felt like a victory. But it couldn’t last. Just as Strapping Young Lad died a year after their now-legendary show at Download Festival, DTP was put on ice in January 2018. It was a band that, to Townsend’s credit, he did everything he could to sustain. Members were on salaries, and were delivered severance pay. But the state of relentless productivity it forced upon him just couldn’t continue. So he made a new record, under his own name, ‘Empath’.

“The decision to make ‘Empath’ was a result of me having the confidence to say, ‘Enough of this shit,’” he explains, audibly exhausted at the thought of it. “As much as it may appear on the surface that I’m a workaholic, and maybe there’s that romantic sentiment of an artist scorning his family and friends for the sake of the muse, I hate that shit.

"I want to write because I want to represent the stages of my life and whatever personal growth goes along with that. But when that gets to the point where your whole life and your identity is defined by your output, when you’re on the road six to 11 months a year and releasing one or two albums a year it’s incredibly unhealthy.”

It’s hard to knock Townsend for these decisions. The members of DTP formed a tight knit unit. Bassist Brian ‘Beav’ Waddell is a schoolfriend who was also in the Devin Townsend Band, as were both drummer Ryan Van Poederooyen and guitarist Dave Young, who also handled live keys for Strapping Young Lad, and appeared on their landmark ‘Alien’ album in 2005.

DTP keyboard player Mike St-Jean didn’t come to the fore until later albums, but worked on the lion’s share of lighting and video design for gigs, and drummed on 2011’s chilled-out ‘Ghost’ record. The decision to cut ties seemed like the only alternative to watching this mesh of relationships slowly unravel.

‘Empath’ posed a risk. It meant Townsend had to abandon the DTP ‘brand’ he’d built over the past decade. However, it just so happens that the record is pretty much the pinnacle of his career, straddling everything from Strapping Young Lad to latter-day DTP, his electronic works to those early prog epics. It’s everything he’s done before and the start of something entirely new, all wrapped in his little idiosyncrasies, all completely Devin Townsend.

“I’d like to say I went into it like a warrior, but I went into it like a terrified kitten and spent the majority of this process embroiled in a sea of neuroses and snot,” he admits. “But it’s not a provocative statement, in my mind, to make a record that goes between all these dynamics. I’m not trying to make it to be like, ‘Check out how weird it is! Now we’re jazz—isn’t that funny? Now we’re death metal—isn’t that funny?’”

To new listeners, ‘Empath’ might appear that way. Despite having shaken the ‘mad scientist’ label and sitting comfortably in the metal media’s ‘humble, bald good guy’ seat, ‘Empath’ is Townsend’s most complex album to date. Initially, it’s all over the place. Genreless.

To call it metal limits it, to dub it prog boxes it in, to label it ‘experimental’ discounts his top-drawer pop sensibilities and genuinely euphoric chorus-writing. It’s not an easy listen, requiring multiple plays to sink in. It offers disco and death metal, gospel rock and ambient passages. That’s a lot to digest, but that’s life—a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

“Life isn’t always beautiful,” Townsend says. “As much as it can be fucking brutal, and as much as you or I can suffer these depressions we have no control over—politically, socially or anything else, all the things we’re fed on social media—we can’t let that take us down. Life is chaos, but I won’t give up if you don’t.

“I’ve had friends who’ve killed themselves, and a lot more who’ve tried to kill themselves. I realised a lot of the ‘all you have to do is think positively to get through this’ rhetoric only works in a vacuum. Mainly if you’re a middle-class, white male. To have some resonance of hope, you have to acknowledge the fucking chaos that is the world right now, the absolute profane horror of it all.”

Elaborating further on the thematic considerations of ‘Empath’, Townsend adds: “The whole record is supposed to be a kind of anti-suicide message, but it was for myself too. When I’m going through it, there’s so many times where I’m like ‘Holy shit, I can’t do this.’ And yeah, there’s that whole ‘Hell is other people’ quote, but without other people, there’s none of the beauty. It’s the relationships we have with other people that truly define the experience of being a human, as an experience that’s worth fighting for.

“And to fight for that, it requires empathy. It requires being able to say that, fundamentally, I don’t agree with this, or I don’t relate to this political ideology, or that religious ideology, or whatever’s in your scope there. To not be willing to discuss those differences is what puts us in these positions where we’re so divided interpersonally. So the idea of empathy, and absorbing other people’s energy, and all these other human things, is the tether holding the stylistic differences between the songs together in one place.”

With this in mind, many believe Devin Townsend to be a deeply complex man. Someone who carefully plans every move. In reality, Devin Townsend is a man who likes to watch home improvement shows and Tweet stuff like “Penis on the weenus”. Music is his outlet, cheesy as it sounds. That’s why, when he delves into the full-on dense keys and grinding metal of Hear Me, he confesses it was “fucking terrifying.” That he was exploring a side of himself that, for years after Strapping Young Lad, he kept suppressed, convinced it was “an aberration, something to be ashamed of.”

Just about all angles of his personality are chipped away at during ‘Empath’, most surprisingly on the Rodgers & Hammerstein-worshipping Why?. Apart from a ludicrous metal cover of New York, New York a few years back, Townsend’s never fully delved into his theatrical side. It’s been a part of his DNA since childhood, through classics as diverse as Jesus Christ Superstar to Phantom of the Opera and West Side Story.

Why? isn’t a metal song, or a rock song. Random death metal vocal aside, it could fit under the same bright lights as those shows. And that’s the plan. As mentioned previously over the years, Townsend has been not-so-quietly beavering away at a project called ‘The Moth’. Details have been scarce, but he described it as a ‘cock symphony’ he was pitching to Sony with an eye to securing millions in funding.  

“I have a tendency to simplify statements…y’know, I think maybe another time would be better for me to start discussing ‘The Moth’,” he trails off, as if he’s been caught. “But I’ll say this: it’s no joke. It’s far from a comedy. It’ll be a quantum leap from anything else I’ve done in terms of production value, it’s a whole new level. But, yeah. I needed to put Why? on this record to soften the blow.

“‘The Moth’ will be a full Broadway-style production, and Why? is me putting that out there casually, while whistling, hoping that its role in this record will be accurate enough so it’s not too shocking when I finally put out ‘The Moth’, and people will be like, ‘At least you gave us a warning shot.’ I just need to get through ‘Empath’ first!”

Between ‘Empath’ and ‘The Moth’, Townsend aims to release a video game based on his much-loved, foul-mouthed puppet character Ziltoid; and a relaxed, low-key acoustic album. And that perfectly sums up his journey. The fact that ‘Empath’ was recorded with three drummers, that it features Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, and Steve Vai, that it ends on a 23 minute song—that doesn’t matter. All that matters is, at 46 years old, Devin Townsend is still making vital music.

“I remember being in the park with my family watching the meteor shower last year,” he finishes. “I felt this subtle awareness of: ‘this is so much more than just me and my dramas, and music, and any of this shit.’ That’s where the inspiration comes from. It’s the connection to something awe-inspiring.”

'Empath' is out on March 29 through InsideOut.

Devin Townsend Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Wed April 24 2019 - LONDON Bush Hall
Thu April 25 2019 - LONDON Bush Hall
Fri April 26 2019 - BRISTOL St Georges
Sat April 27 2019 - LEEDS City Varieties
Mon April 29 2019 - EDINBURGH Jam House
Tue April 30 2019 - BIRMINGHAM Glee Club
Thu December 05 2019 - CARDIFF Great Hall
Fri December 06 2019 - DUBLIN Academy
Sat December 07 2019 - BELFAST Limelight
Mon December 09 2019 - GLASGOW SWG3 Galvanizers
Tue December 10 2019 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Thu December 12 2019 - LONDON Roundhouse
Fri December 13 2019 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City

Click here to compare & buy Devin Townsend Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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