Devin Townsend Will Sacrifice Anything as an Artist That Is ‘Not in Line With the Truth’
Devin Townsend was the guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend show. The talented artist made the bold move of stepping away from his band after their last album, choosing to stretch himself artistically with the new Empath album.
During the chat, Devin speaks about not boxing himself in as an artist, how working acoustically has provided its own challenges and his desire to field different lineups of musicians to play his Empath music live. Check out the discussion below.
We're here to talk about the new album, Empath, which shows various elements showcased throughout your career. What's the prominent revelation about your musical development through the single context of this album?
I think the overarching theme of this is one that is of middle age, and what tends to happen as you careen towards 50 is unawareness of time and mortality and things such as this. It's a pretty typical story, but how that affected the creative part of this album is that it put me in the position to where I wanted to almost make a best-of album of everything that I've done in the past, but with new material. [I wanted to] analyze my relationship with each one of those sorts of musical aesthetics.
So the heavy stuff, or the orchestral stuff, or the top stuff, I put it all in one place. And I also think that the sort of awareness of time allowed me to take some risks with this record that, up to this point I've just not taken; financially or thematically, or whatever. It's resulted in something that I'm really proud of.
In terms of composition and production, your music has often been elaborate. How will simplifying it on tour with an acoustic set redefine the perception of your songs?
I think that's a good question. I think the reason why I'm doing the acoustic is two-fold. One, it gives me time to think. The process of making Empath is just really, really arduous, and although I recognized the need to promote it immediately and tour it immediately, I wanted to cut myself a break, and not just do a nose dive into a brand new band immediately. So the acoustics show is giving me an opportunity to be present for an audience, promote it and spend some time thinking about my next step. So when I do get back there with this next group of people, it's not haphazard.
Then second of all, what the acoustics show has really underlined to me is the fact that all of this music that I've written, no matter the complexity of it, generally starts with me and a guitar in my room, or on tour, or what have you. And to be able to play these acoustic shows and include Strapping [Young Lad] songs or Empath songs, or orchestral songs, and still have it come across the way they do on the record emotionally, I think really demonstrates to the audience that this stuff is not entirely based on complexity of the production, but it really is rooted in the emotional content.
Devin, musicians can find their creativity inadvertently, bound by the music that made them popular. What made you consciously determined to never be defined by any specific style?
I think that fame is something that I actively try to avoid. And the older I get, the more conscious I get of how easily you can be defined by your work in the longterm, if you've had significant success at any one aspect of it. Some people would argue that you should seek that type of success. For example, making that one really commercial song, or the one really commercial album, as a means to fund your creative endeavors past that point.
However, it's a two-sided sword, because as soon as you start generating income that other people become dependent on, whether it's the label or management or the band or a crew on tour, the amount of pressure that gets compounded on your creativity to uphold that level of financial success, I think can really tempt artists to make decisions creatively that are in opposition to where as a person they need to go.
So I, in a sense with Empath, made a conscious decision to pull back from the success that was starting to happen with DTP because as much as I enjoyed those people and that band, it wasn't right yet. My pursuit of getting my vision right is such that I'm willing to sacrifice anything that is not in line with the truth.
Steve Vai and Chad Kroeger from Nickelback are two of numerous people playing and singing on Empath. Do you write with specific people in mind or is it a case of who can best convey something once it's written?
I think it's a combination of the two because all the creativity that I have engaged in with all these records are — it's all hand in hand with the personal development. I think that ultimately if I was to define what it is what I'm trying to do, as a person let alone music, is I'm trying to become actualized as who I am but without any compromise, without any delusions of who I am within myself. That's a lofty goal. Will I get there? That's debatable, but that's the goal nonetheless.
So, within that process, you encounter scenarios that influence your writing and because of the success that I've to have up until this point and the number of people that I know within the scene and what have you, I know a ton of people. From time to time, those circumstances and those people that you know become important shifts in your creative consciousness. And when that does happen the music will typically be hand in hand with that. So I ask people to be involved with the songs specifically if they have been involved with aspects of that personal growth.
Chad or Steve or [Mike] Keneally or the orchestras, or whatever, are examples of people that I've just found in my life by circumstance. The circumstance clearly being involved with the music industry and what have you, but certain bands nonetheless. So as I'm listening through, I often think to myself I need another voice here. This song goes hand in hand with this situation that this person was involved with, therefore I will ask them.
You've been auditioning people for multiple touring bands, each meant for specific tours over the next few years. What exhilarates you about the nuances different players will give your music?
I think I have not had the opportunity to really stretch my wings, if you want to look at it that way, as a creative entity. I think up until this point I have peered stretching for whatever reason. Maybe I was financially dependent on a certain level of success, but over the past few years I've made shifts to my personal life that have accommodated a lot more experimentation and each time I've done that, and it hasn't fallen on its face, it makes me realize how many more things I want to experience as an artist.
So, when it came time to decide on what I was going to do with a live band, to play Empath in its entirety in 2021, it started with, 'OK well you need to put together a band to do that.' But that was something that imposed a parameter on me that I'm not yet ready for. As soon as you do this, well there's your album. That's what your doing, Bob's your uncle.
But what I decided to do instead was, 'Well hang on, I want to do three or four different bands that do very different things.' Maybe one of them can be really improvisational and really avant-garde. Maybe one can be really brutal. Maybe one can be really orchestral and choral. Maybe one can be really simplistic and minimal. Then by doing that, this acoustic tour being one example of that trajectory, by the time I get to Empath in 2021 I will have played the material in one form or another and I will have gone through enough musicians that I will know who the right people to be doing what it is what I want to do.
So it's a way of not only providing an audience something really interesting and really uncompromised and really in ways I've never been able to explore which brings excitement to it that I haven't felt in years. I have a final goal in mind, once I get to it, it will be unequivocal as a result of this.
Thanks to Devin Townsend for the interview. The 'Empath' album is currently available in the format of your choosing here. Townsend is currently on tour in support of the album. See all dates and get ticketing info here. Find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie’s radio show here.
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