Metal, Hummus, and Sex: An Interview with Devin Townsend
Devin Townsend is a lot of things, and most of them all at once. An infinite mix of talent and humor that has, over the last two-and-some decades, created one of the weirdest, most rich, and awe inspiring careers I have ever witnessed. He began as a member of Steve Vai's back-up band and morphed into the metal beast that was Strapping Young Lad – one of the best things that ever happened to one wide-eyed kid who stayed up late to watch some grown-up metal and was suddenly hit by "Detox," instantly understanding that his life had changed.
From there on, though, it got a less clear. Not because Devin Townsend lost focus or energy, but because I don't really think the universe was built to handle someone like him. He changed bands, mostly band names, always moving on the line between metal, rock, and just plain space-nuttiness. But never, whether in the chaotic mess that is SYL's magnus opus, City, which is celebrating its 18h anniversary right about now, or the calm of Epicloud, can one miss Townsend's fingerprints.
Personally, from the moment that I encountered his second post-SYL release, the amazingly beautiful and powerful Ocean Machine, he was for me something quite beyond music. A role model, no less, of an inquisitive person and artist, smart, ironic, and self-aware. I don't know a lot of people, but anyone out there who's into Devin Townsend is probably my best friend.
All that, and more, served as the background for a conversation with one of my heroes, and what came out of it exceeded whatever I could expect. There's a good chance that, as music-related interviews go, this has to be one of the worst ever. But, as an encounter between two people, one inherently linked to music but deals with life, even if the subject matter is Metallica, it's one of the best conversations I've ever had, and that includes the cute chats I have with my soon-to-be-one-year-old baby girl.
Enjoy. I know I did.
First thing I wanted to ask you was if you remember a moment when you were younger, listening to a band, or a specific song, or an album that really changed the way…that you remember a moment where you went like "Holy shit!" and it completely changed what you thought about music, about life?
I think two spring to mind, if I could be so bold. First off was the song "The Burning Down" at the end of Gretchen Goes to Nebraska by King's X. I remember being maybe 15 years old, and hearing that and feeling like nothing was the same after, specifically the next morning, when I woke up. And the second would be the song "Up the Beach," by Jane's Addiction, when I was about 17 or 18.
What was it about these songs, what was it about the King's X song that made you feel as though your life has changed?
I think there's always been an element of, like a spiritual component to what I've strived for with music. Not because I'm particularly inclined in any theological direction but just that I think it would be foolish to deny the fact that there's something beyond me [laughs], you know? So I think that when I heard that it implied a connection to that that I felt a kinship towards. And I think that with the Jane's Addiction one, it was just wrong, and it was forcing itself to be right, and I for some reason really relate to that sentiment.
Actually, I wanted to ask you about that. Obviously, you've been at it for a while now…
[Laughs] and obviously during that while you've, I wouldn't say "changed," because you pretty much stayed the same person – I mean I'm talking about the imaginary person I envision when I listen to your music – you're pretty much the same person, right? You're just expressing different aspects of your personality, but you're the same guy.
But it always seems like you're interested in being embedded in discomfort, in a way.
I wonder if that's true.
I think there's an element of that that is unfortunately true, and my conscious mind resents it, but subconsciously I find that I struggle often with not doing things that are inappropriate or sabotaging myself in some way. I think that sort of self-destructive mechanism has been at work since as far back as I can remember, and I think one thing that has been a benefit of that is that I've used that sort of internal struggle to my advantage, and it's become a motivator to continue.
But, absolutely, I would say. And it disappoints me to think that I would be as trite as that, but I feel like I'm guided by my subconscious in ways that I can only vaguely control.
I mean, you could say this about many things regarding your career, you know? You could say it about the switch between different projects, different musicians, different styles, different statements. You're always kind of building something, and tearing it down the next day. And you said you were using this thing, which maybe you would consider personally a deficiency, to the betterment of your music. But, how would you do that? What would be a way of using that tension to be more productive, or to be a better artist, or to be a better person?
Well, I think that's the goal. When people ask me to pinpoint what my life goals are, it's rarely that the first thing on my mind is "I want be a big rock musician and make a lot of money," it's really "I want to be at peace, and not be the neurotic anxiety case that I have been and continue to be.
And it's one thing to say that, because that implies that it's as simple as flipping a switch. But when you are artistically inclined to follow your impulses, and through those try to articulate them in ways that will allow you after the fact to objectively see what has been going on in your life, it isn’t that simple. So, it's either I try and use that tension that is created subconsciously, I believe, to my advantage, or I just let it take over, and I don't think that's a viable option.
Not viable because it isn't healthy?
Well, it isn't healthy, exactly. I mean, I can spend a bunch of time chastising myself for the way that I am, or I can find ways to use it to improve myself, and that's what it is, right?
Right. I kind of wanted to ask you, specifically in this respect, of the first couple of Strapping Young Lad albums, which, seemingly, to the unsuspecting ear, would look like the two most straightforward statements you've done in your artistic career. You could say "Oh, Devin Townsend, he's all over the place, but I KNOW that in City that he's metal," you know? That would seem like something a reasonable person would think. But, I don't think that about those albums, I feel those albums, deceptively, are a lot about tension. And it seems that half of the time in City, for example, you're either playing metal, and kind of like looking at yourself playing metal. Does that make sense?
Very much, very much. I think the thing about City, and about the whole Strapping Young Lad thing, is that was a particular style of music that snuck up on me. It was not something that I was fluid in prior to that, I had to kind of study that back in the early 90s, because it was, of the choices that I had presented to me in order to continue doing music after [working with Steve] Vai. The more melodic Ocean Machine side wasn't getting attention from any label. But the heavier side, that I just sort of haphazardly made demoes for, did.
So, with the first Strapping record I was kind of trying it on for size and experimenting with those sorts of extremes. But with City, and I think that a lot of what you express there defines Strapping in general, that there's a sense of irony to it, where you are self-aware of what it is to the point of almost humor. It doesn't necessarily, it doesn't negate the quality of it necessarily, but it just makes it, I don’t know if insincere is the right word, but certainly detached.
You see, Strapping Young Lad was meant to be a reflection of the things that I was afraid of. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I am highly neurotic and highly insecure about a lot of things. But also the only way I've felt I've been able to move, maybe because my emotional intelligence is so low, is to actualize these things and then observe them after the fact. So, you know, I think with Strapping there's an element of that detachment that serves it. But ultimately, was I ever that? I guess the answer is yes, absolutely, it's just that, I mean, I don't find any of it particularly easy, but I find most of it quite humorous.
This would be my time to kind of interject with my overly philosophical inclinations…
There's a definition of irony that I'm a big fan of, and which was my sense of your music, and I think Strapping is just a very explicit moment of that, and it's a definition that works really well with everything you're saying. It's based in German Romanticism, a guy called Friedrich Schlegel, a nice fellow, and he defines irony as the irresolvable tension between the impossibility of absolute communication and the necessity to do so.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Perfect sense. The only problem with that is that that puts a definition on life as being just perpetually unsolvable. But, I guess that puts value on death, though, because at that point…. But of course, it's true. If you have a moment of spiritual significance, in any way, whether it's through death, or birth, or drugs, or religion, or whatever your mode to get there is, there's this profound sadness of never a) being able to articulate that in a way that is satisfactory, or b) being able to merge with it in a way that is complete. So, I think that we find solace through all of those things, in sex, or drugs, or rock n' roll or whatever, just to try and get closer and closer to that goal.
I guess that's why I find the humor of life and the humor of music that it's you just can't. And so, life is this eternal set of blue balls, in a way.
[Laughing my ass off]
Where you're trying, you know [laughs] to get it out of your system and it always comes across as this skewed egocentric bullshit.
I mean, the way I see it you can either ignore the fact that the blue balls exist…
Sure, and a lot of people do.
I know, and I hate those people. You were talking about how City was insincere in a way, but I don’t think that's what I think when I think of insincere, I think that's honest. I think that being awkward, and feeling like things don't have a chance, I think that's the most natural thing to think.
I think it's insincere when you think "Yes, I scored!" I mean, there are albums that I loved when I was a kid, they were metal and heavy, but when I look at them now I think "Holy shit, what a bunch of douchbags."
[Laughs] No, I agree.
Because they act like they solved the problem, but the problem's never solved.
Well, there's tons of money in acting like you've solved the problem. I think that's what happens in most parts. That's why when I quit Strapping people were questioning about that, and I said "Look, I make a lot of money rationalizing that type of behavior, because people want that, people want to have the soundtrack to something that is, by and large, inappropriate. And I'm not saying that in a moral sense just in a cause-and-effect sense. What you put out there is ultimately what resonates in your world.
So, a lot of people, well everybody is confused in these existential ways that we discussed, and say "Have music with the good logo and branded with Pepsi," or whatever else. "It's OK to hate, it's OK to kill, it's OK to solve your problems through ignorance and aggression," and all that sort of stuff. I mean, god, there's tons of money in that. And I don’t necessarily hold people at fault for pursuing that, because life is hard and you want to have a house, and a car, and all this other shit that comes along with it.
Right, but you wouldn't listen to their albums that much.
Well, you do when you're younger, because there's no perspective on it. But it's the same thing with drugs, it's like once you've got the message you've got to hang up the phone to be able to have had a moment where a spiritual or emotional alarm clock has gone off in your head, and you're just like "Oh, the reason I'm doing this is because of fear. Oh, the reason I'm doing this is because of childhood trauma," or whatever.
Once you realize that, to continue doing those things just make you sick, you know? There's nothing to that other than psychological and spiritual sickness, because you know that what you're doing is fucked, and you continue to do it, for whatever reason. I think that’s the thing, because every time I've had the realization where I'm like "Oh, the reason why I'm fascinated with the darkness, again, is because I'm afraid, and it becomes a mirror for those fears that I feel can reflect it and then keep people away from me as a result." But as soon as you recognize that, and you continue to do it, then you're just playing a role, and there's nothing about growth in that way of working. That's all based on just bravado.
It's interesting to me that you brought up Ocean Machine in this respect, because Ocean Machine, I should confess right now, is my personal favorite. Because I think it's a super special album, because it seems like a moment where, excuse the crudeness, a lot of shit crystalized at the same time. The heavy thing was there, it was used as a kind of texture, it wasn't used as a bone-headed metal thing, it was used as a frequency almost that makes the other things shine brighter. And the other things were that it felt very personal, it felt very emotional and very spiritual. Are any of those things in your mind when you think about that album, at all?
Oh, sure. The problem is, and here's full disclosure – here I am at 43 years old, I've managed to create a career for myself in some way, and I've got very little left to say, and that's a problem, because I'm not set for life financially by any stretch of the imagination. So, in a sense, now I'm working on a symphony, and I'm working on a bunch of other stuff, but when I think back to Ocean Machine, that was a time when there was no pressure. There was pressure, there were all the things that came along with being 22, or whatever, but I had years to put it together, and when it came out it was correct. And there have been moments after that that I think are of value, but it's been a long time since I've felt the same connection to music. I think the record I put out last year, Casualties of Cool, was one of the only things I've done in recent memory that I like, that I really like.
But, now, it's like we're playing all these shows and there are certain things that I represent and all this sort of stuff, and it's like: "Well, what do you do now? What do you do now? You put together a bunch of, you know…you see the audience, they really like it when it goes that sort of tempo or that sort of idea, this sort of sentiment works well for a sunset on a stage, and this kind of thing makes people laugh when you're playing"….
It gets down do the detail of what song to play when there's a sunset on stage? That's as specific as it gets?
Well, that's how I write. It's synesthesia or whatever when numbers, and letters, and colors, and shapes, and emotions, it's all, they are sort of intertwined. But, the thing is that when I think back to the older music, to the City's and Oceans Machine's, and those sorts of things, my intention was much different. And, as a result of having resolved the things that created those moments of really good music, you can't, in the same way I talked about once you see what you're doing you can't go back to it, it's the same thing. The sort of innocence that allowed City to be propelled or Ocean Machine to be propelled, just by the nature of those records being completed, no longer exists. And so, it's a conundrum.
With you saying that, it makes perfect sense why Casualties would be a likable record for you, since a) you've mentioned in the past that you were very unpressured while you were making it, out of the album-tour pressure, "When will you make another Strapping album," and so on.
And b), and this is my guesswork here, that it seems to me that the only real way to kind of solve that conundrum, in which you've tapped into a very primal chaos and you worked through that chaos, and the you're on the other side of it. And now, there's still chaos, only the magnitude is much smaller. And its seems like the only good way to come out of that loop, and I'm sorry for sounding sappy, is going back home. To come full circle. To be the person you rebelled against when you were a kid.
Obviously, you're not coming back to be the same person that you rebelled against, because you went through all that angry everything. But you're acting like it. You know what I mean?
Of course, of course. I think that the goal in life is you have to unlearn what you've learned. And I think that the fastest way out is through, and for me that just comes down to analysis. There's no…. It's like the thought of someone being envious of somebody who is ignorant because they seem happy. But that's not the kind of happiness that I'm looking for, you know? I needed to experience it, I needed to explore, to be able to return home, as you say, but without the questions.
It's not like I dislike faith, in a sense, and I'm talking about the term "faith" rather than in a religious sense, but the idea of faith by definition, meaning you're putting your heart in the future, into something that can't have any proof – I don't even know if that is the definition, in my mind, at least – that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking to know unequivocally that I know nothing. And it takes all this observation, and that's what the point of Deconstruction was, the arrogance to think that you could ever understand anything ultimately results in another type of chaos. It's hilarious, its infinite void, to think that you could ever understand that is just profoundly arrogant.
But I had to figure that out, I had to go there, I had to take it as far as I can go to recognize that I don't know shit, I don't know anything. I know less now than I did in the beginning. But unequivocally now do I know that I know nothing? And I think that's why Casualties was the way it was, because it was about the shadows, it wasn't about standing in the light and saying "OK, I understand now," it's about that there's infinite shadows and there's infinite light, and I can only take home the things that I have learned for myself.
And that's what's so frustrating, because there's so many different sides to look at it, like infidelity, or "Why don't you do drugs? Why don't you eat meat?" There's reasons on both sides that make perfect sense to me. So, you have to stand for something. And, god, that's the fucking hardest part, is to be able to say "This is why I stand for this," in the face of everybody saying "Well, what about this on the other side of it?" And you're like "I know, but I've made this decision." And it’s without any sort of confidence whatsoever, it's just I made the decision because in my experience the cause and effect of this is something that I don't want in my life.
I think that a great to place to be in is when someone says "Hey Devin, why don't you do drugs?" and then you would say "Fuck off!"
You could say "Fuck off!" because you're like "This is what happened in the past," you know? It didn't just happen once, it happened over and over again, and the idea of insanity being to do something over and over and expecting different results. No man, the reason why I don't do drugs is that every time I did I fucked shit up, you know?
[Laughing] It's really simple
It's really simple! "Why don't you have sex with a bunch of women instead of your wife?" Well, because it's going to fuck a lot of shit up, you know? It's like, "Why don't you eat meat? You love meat?" Well, because I have a hard time swallowing the vibrations of it all, I have a hard time ignoring the suffering. It's not like I dislike meat, it's that I dislike the idea of participating in that kind of suffering, you know? And it sucks, all these things suck. "Do you want to have drugs?" Fuck yeah! "Do you want to have sex with a bunch of women?" Fuck yeah! "Do you want to have a steak every night for dinner?" Fuck yeah! When I finally got a point in my life where, whether or not there's rationales on both sides of the fence, just by the sheer repetitive nature of the failures that I've made, I at least now can make an informed decision [laughs].
I seems like today, I don't know have social-media savvy or interested you are, but it seems like arguments are spreading, they're multiplying, because every single person on earth can reach you and say, "Hey, what about that?" And if you're a thinking person, or if you're a sensitive person – I don't know what the definition is – then you always taken these things to heart. It’s like, "Oh, why don’t I? You're right! That sounds absolutely logical!"
And you're surrounded by these really sound-sounding, logical, bravado-filled arguments, it's like you're accosted. And it takes a lot for you to kind of snap out of it and say "Fuck you!"
Especially when you're accosted by people who are more intelligent than you, that's the one that's the real bitch. Because you get people who are hyper-intelligent who present to know another side to the argument that makes perfect sense. And you're like "Fuck me! That sucks! Because now I have to….
Rethink my life…
Well, it's not only that, it's existential thing, it's like "You are right, but I'm going to hold on to this," and it makes me feel like an idiot for hanging on to something that intellectually makes zero sense in the face of your argument, only because in the past this has happened. And then it calls into question like, "Well maybe this is because I'm weak," and at that point you have to be like "Ok, well maybe you are," and let's just roll with that.
I think the problem is that when I talk to people about everything, gun control, religion, drugs, sexism, racism, all these things, the amount of times where I'm presented with counter arguments, you know, feminism, all these things, where I think to myself "I can never make a statement about anything other than my own life through music, through art." Because I have this unbelievably annoying propensity for saying: "Oh, that is a good point, I never thought of it that way," or "Wow, that does make sense."
I'll make a personal point, and I'm going to use the fallen gods of my musical youth, which I now see as bravado-filled nothingness, or the illusion of the ability to empty the blue balls, if you like. You said "vibrations," and I'm going to hang on to that word. This is what makes music that great, because music is everywhere, and there's a certain music to the way people talk, and if they talk in that way, that music, it sounds false to me.
Now, I can't argue with the words, right? If they say "Ron, find a better argument," I couldn't. And I'm very bad at finding the better argument on the spot as it is. But I could say: "This sounds fake. This doesn’t sound like a genuine person is saying something that has a direct impact on his life. This sounds like a person out to feel smart, out to feel right.
Of course. And the root of that is always fear, you know what I mean?
It's the same thing, the same guys who are terrified, and I'm going to name the album and people are going to hate me, whatever, but my icon for this, and I apologize to every metal kid in the world, but my icon for this fear-driven ignorance is Master of Puppets. I have a feud with Master of Puppets.
Because I think Master of Puppets isn't about people, it isn't about the expression of an individual life. It's about fending people from off of you…
Right, that's what City was.
OK, but City's better.
No, that's just the truth…
You would say, "Well, why is City better?" and I know 99 percent of the people I know would be enraged by that statement. But I would say this, and this is the same thing I would say to people saying very logical things to me. They would say "Look, this is a great album. 'Battery,' that's a great song! 'Disposable Heroes,' look at that riff!" and I would agree with everything. But then I would end up agreeing that something is beautiful, that something is worthwhile in this world just because someone convinced me that it was that, without me thinking it, or feeling it, which I think is the word we're looking for here.
I totally agree with that, but I'm going to play devil's advocate here for a second. So, Master of Puppets was primarily written by James Hetfield, right? Who, as we've seen with how proactive he has been, for whatever reason, guilt, or whatever, in revealing himself: the relationship with his dad, the relationship with his teenage self, childhood abuse, or whatever. The path to him getting to point where he at least seems like he's proactively resolving those things, it was essential for that record to be a part of that.
I agree completely, I agree completely and that argument was presented to me in a different form, but I agree with your formation, that for him to get to the point where's he's past being the dauchebag who writes Master of Puppets he has to write Master of Puppets…
I agree completely. And yet, what I'm saying, and this is the nerdiest conversation ever, is that, be that as it may, that moment in his life is boring to me. I can't listen to it.
Well, that's totally, of course, that makes perfect sense.
That’s a kid saying "Fuck you, I'm strong." I can empathize and look at the and say "Wow, that kind of bravado must have come from a deep and dark place." But, I have artists that I love, and this is why City is different, that despite the fact that there was an outrush of bravado, I could have told you that I loved it because it had tension it.
As much as I appreciate it, full disclosure again, it was entirely unintentional. And that's the thing…
That's fine, that's the reason why you can't take full credit for your art ever…
Because you're following your unconscious, and you're unconscious is something you can't control, so you can't control it. And it's not James Hetfield's fault that his unconscious at that moment was a very primal, uninteresting one, for me. Nor is it to your credit that yours was, I agree with that completely.
But, the end result is that yours is.
And I think, again, as much as I appreciate it, it's also luck of the draw too. And I think it's funny to see how it manifested. So, for example, Metallica, as a result of his emotional proclivities at that particular time, where all those pennies dropped at the same time, resulted in Metallica becoming the biggest heavy metal band, arguably one of the biggest bands of all time. But, what is the end result of that for him? Aside from financial stability, which is good and wouldn't hurt for any of us, I wonder if the ramifications of that statement, at that point, is just that that's where he's meant to go. And all the suffering now that he has, is a direct result of tapping into that.
And see this is why it all goes back to, for me…. You know, when you think about the fate or free-will thing, and whether or not you can choose your own fate, if you want look at it that way, it’s less karma, less anything for me, other than cause and effect, in every decision that you make. Like, the conscious decision I made in '95 to write City was based on all the decisions that came before. And those decisions were based on the decisions my parents made to vilify emotions such as fear, for me. And then those decisions were made based on my grandparents' conscious decision to make an abusive moment there with my mother, or whatever.
So, when you look at it that way in terms of, well nothing's ever really your fault, but at the same time it's all your doing. So, now that I'm later on in life, it's that I look back at all these statements that I made, and I don’t think any music that I've done is of much significance, I don't think music in general is of much significance, it's just a by product of the process, but, at the same time, now it's all about accountability. And it's so easy to moralize that and to think "Well you're doing these things because you want to be a good person" and all that, or you think "I'm doing this because I want to avoid pain." But either way is a selfish act.
So, what is truly the point here? What is truly the point? And I think it's all these self-help bullshit books that trumpet "Well, it's family and friends," and all these sorts of things. There's certainly an element to that, for sure, but there's also an underlying "Well, we're just amoebas, we're just connected to the infinite in ways that are no different than that of the Sal bug I accidently killed on my way to the studio this morning," or any of all of this. And there's also a beauty in that.
So, when I think about this whole conversation it all comes back to your definition of irony, and maybe each one of our lives is essentially just meant to represent that struggle in infinite and different ways.
I agree. I think, usually when I talk about it with people, like when I talk about my research on soldier poetry and how irony relates to that, then people say "Oh, that's depressing." And I'm like, "That's not depressing at all!" To me it’s a life force. The recognition of the fact that the life force includes many dark places, and that even if a self-help book says all you need is friends and family…
Oh, and don't forget "Being in the moment."
Yeah, being in the moment, absolutely. Friends and family is a very dark place, it can be.
Family dies, all the time. Your kids remind you of dead relatives – that's a freaky thing. So your life, your happiness, all your glowing goodness are always going to be, like you said when you talked about Casualties, there's always going to be a shadow there. So, if you're running toward family and friends, or toward Master of Puppets, looking for a light that never has a shadow, then it's a lost cause. That's what sad to me, that's the tragedy. The tragedy isn't accepting it.
It's the duality of that that I think defines this particular existence, where in every beauty there is ugly, in every ugly there is beauty. And I think the most blatant example of that is sex, in my opinion. Because, I read something the other day where somebody had a hypothesis that all horror movies were, at the root of it, based in losing one's virginity. And they went in to describe that in a bunch of ways that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.
But the idea of sex, and sexual identity between men and women, and women, as a result of that, with childbirth, and human females having the most traumatic childbirths of any mammal, and sex as a weapon, and sex as, for men, as a returning to the womb, and the fact that, as a man, you think about sex once every five minutes or seven seconds, or whatever it is. And for me, I know for myself, 99 percent of my motivations, musically or life-wise, are based on sex.
How does that work?
It works very inefficiently [laughs]. But I mean, that's just how it is. I'm friends with females, and we have these conversations. And I'm like: "If I'm being honest with myself, I'm telling it's next to impossible for man to have a Platonic relationship, a true Platonic relationship, with a woman.״ Because it's very difficult for men to control that lizard brain that's always like: "Wow, that's a good point! Look at your ass!" And again, I talk to some men who say: "Well, that's just because you're weak," and I'm like "I just don't know if you're being honest."
And when I'm talking to women who are also being honest about it, I'm like "Don't think that I'm objectifying you, but please don't mistake the fact that it takes a hell-of-a-lot of personal energy to not do so. And that's why pornography is such a trap, in my mind, because it's so easy to get into that mindset where sex becomes separate from the identity of the person. And as a musician and all these things, to meet female fans and to consciously think "Look in her eyes, don't look at her body," do you know what I mean?
I do, although I've never been in that situation.
No, dude, of course, and that's your thing. When I meet a female fan I'm like "You have to remember that this is a person, and not a sex thing." And I find…. I had this conversation with a friend of mine, a female friend of mine, where it took a while for her to accept the fact that what I was saying was not like "Well, I'm a deviant, and all I want to do is have sex with every woman I meet." I'm just in deep analysis of how I can overcome that, and whether or not I ever actually can. You know what I mean? It's the human thing.
It's great that sex is that place that encompasses both the dark, violent even, gorey side, as well as all the good sides…
And connections to the infinite, and religious experiences, or at least spiritual experiences, totally.
You said that as part of a lifetime of just ploughing through this shit, and by ploughing splattering shit to the sides, which kind of hardens into albums and into songs…
You coming full circle, to right now, with you writing a symphony. And, again, symphonies are different from anything you've done until now, but I don’t know of anyone who's listened to your music who'd be in complete shock that you were writing a symphony. But, and this is something that came into my mind as I was preparing for this interview, a lot of artists kind of grow into symphonies or abstract ambient electronic music, and a lot of times they never come back from that. It feels like a one-way street. As though if you grow into that size of composition, you never want to be a rock musician ever again. But that doesn't seem to the case with you, because that would be just mimicking fake enlightenment.
Oh yeah, fucking hell, tell me about it. I think that's the thing, it's just like any time anybody has ever accused me of being "enlightened" or "centered" in any way, I will stumble over myself to express that that is the furthest thing from the truth. But, the problem is, and this is what I'll reiterate from the beginning of our conversation, what if, after I splatter all this things to the side, I can get to the point where the next stage of whatever I feel in this existence it takes for me to actualize myself, doesn’t include music? Then what the fuck do I do?
It's like, how do you continuously sell yourself, so you can pay your hydro bill and do all that sort of stuff? And I'm not saying that that's the situation right now, I'm making a salary and I'm OK. But, what happens if eventually that's where I'll come to? I mean, it's doubtful to me that I would be able to get back on the phone with you, for example, and say: "Oh, I have way more music to do, and this one's going to be just as good as Ocean Machine, and stay tuned for the next stage, and there are t-shirts available," and all this shit, you know? I just don’t think I could buy it enough to sell it.
And that is a fear for me, because I just keep hoping that maybe the decisions that I am continuously making now that err on the side of either caution or cleverness, on my part, will provide me with enough fiscal units to support this shit, without having to phone it in with people, and be like "Here's another one that's kind of heavy because I know people like to jump up and down, and the chorus here is good, because I know that people really like to remember a chorus." And I've been flirting with that recently, there have been moments on the last couple of records where I was like "Holy shit Dev, you gotta be careful."
I would say that the "Holy shit Dev, you gotta be careful" thing is a good sign, that at least you're vigilant against that happening.
Very much, but with Epicloud I went through popular music, and I said: "Well, what are the structures here?" And I just copied them. And then you have people saying: "You know, I really liked that song, that song was one of the best songs you've done," and I'm like "I didn't write that shit, I just listened to the radio and I heard Maroon 5, and that's what they did."
I have a bunch of things I can say to that, and one of those is that you're always copying things. It's not different in any way than you would, 20 years ago, say "Fuck, people like heavy music. How do you riff?"
That's what I did with City!
And then just mimicking that.
That's what I did!
I know, so that's not a crime unto itself, for me. So, you're in the clear with me, if that matters.
[Laughs] It does.
But, I would add to that with a) I'm in a very scary place in my life right now, so I have no right or ability to disprove your fear, your fear is justified. It's a scary thing to think about. But, as long, and this is b), as you keep sabotaging yourself, which is, again, going back to the beginning of our conversation, as long as you feel that urge to sabotage yourself, I think you'll be fine. Because, just like there's a seductive power to someone's arguments, even though you'll come later to the realization that he's wrong, and to listening to "Orion," there's a kind of seductive power with turning to classical music. Because it creates the appearance of coming full circle, of beginning as a metal musician, and then arriving at classical music as if that's the last stage. But, that's not necessarily true.
I agree. But, here's one that I'll add to that is that I think "sabotage," that word doesn't sit perfectly well with me. Not because I'm offended by it, but just because I think that, rather than conscious sabotaging, I don't think it's much more for me than just an ignorance to my true nature. All these things that I do are like walking through a room and trying on different cloths. And I look at myself in the mirror with it, and I'm like "What does that red-and-black thing like to me?" And I'm like "Well, it's part of it." "OK, what's this blue-and-black thing look like to me? Well, it's a part of it? OK, what's this yellow thing?" You know? And I just keep trying these things on, but none of them sit well. They may for a moment, but whether or not that's boredom or just wanting to be naked, or whatever it is, there's an element of that more so than, I'd like to think, a conscious sabotaging.
No no, I didn't mean conscious sabotaging, because I think…
No, even if you did, that's alright. I mean, I don't know! I don't know who I am! I don't know what I look like. And I'd like to think that my true nature involves all of it, but it's so transient and it changes so quickly year by year, that it pisses me off, more than anything else.
And so, I think that every time I put out a record, as long as I'm being vigilant, as you say, then at least people expect, whether or not they even like this shit, it's coming from the place of the same energy that was City or Ocean Machine. Whether or not Addicted, or Ziltoid, or even Epicloud, it's not coming from a place of…. Even with Epicloud I was trying different structures and trying do to commercial-sounding things. It wasn't with the intention of becoming a superstar, it was with the intention of going "Well, what would I look like with this on?"
That makes complete sense to me, and I think that it works. I mean, it's been working, so there's no reason for it not to continue working from now until you reach happy retirement and you could, uhhh…
Die! That's fantastic!
In a sense, in a sense. You know, it's like, I mean, who knows? I mean, I'm not in a rush to die, but I'm also not particularly afraid of it, so I think that the combination of those things, while you're here…. You say family and friends, take solace in family and friends? Good luck, you know? I like that quote that Richard Alpert gave which is like "If you ever feel like you're enlightened, just spend a week with your family." It makes perfect sense.
I have a favorite anecdote about my family, about how it's good that family serves as a limit to your work, is that you're going through your academic career and get to good places. And then someone toasts you during Friday-night dinner, and the whole room is happy for you – and you're happy, because you like it when people are happy for you, and then the odd relative asks about your research. And five seconds into the conversation, next thing you know they're desperately trying to find someone else to talk to.
They don't give a fuck, they don't give a fuck about who you think you are. They give a fuck about the fact that they love you and that they want you to be happy, but they're not into the specifics that much.
There's an element of that I think that keeps you humble, too.
No, I love it.
When I was a teenager I hated it. "You don't get me! You don't get who I am!" right?
When we're teenagers our identity hinges on these things. After you get older, people are like: "What do you do for a living?" I'm like "You know, music shit." But it's never like…. When I was a teen or even in my early twenties I'd say "Oh, I'm a musician, listen to my new record." Now it's like "I'm a musician?" they're like "Oh yeah? You got music?" and I'm like "I got it, I got so much fucking music, whatever man." It's not like my value as a person is hinged on that anymore, and that's good too. But, again, I guess it's all steps in the ladder.
I think there's one thing I'll take, to finalize here, I think the one thing I'll take from any of those self-help things is that if you try to view anything as a goal, you're fucked. But if you just keep just poking away, with your goals being transient and modest, then I think you're going to be OK in life. I often say "strive to be happy," but happiness is an illusion, you know, it's like I strive to keep my goals a little less. I wanna eat some good food and get laid every now and then, and hope to god my kids and wife and family don't suffer too much. And then, in between that, we'll write about it and then we eventually just die. Here you go.
There's nothing I can say at this point, but I have the one question that I kind of have to bust out as the clichéd music journalist talking to a musician-type person. Which is: would you ever consider playing Israel?
Oh, of course. We were offered a show there about two years ago, but it fell through, I think for logistic reasons. But yeah, of course, I'd love to play Israel.
Do it! If only since now you have the chance to participate in a Friday-night dinner. I know you're going to be on the phone with your management in about five seconds just because of that one.
[Laughs] I met a bunch of people from Israel recently, and seems like there's a specific energy to the interactions I've had so far, even though the people were different, there's a consistency to it that is usually really engaging, which is cool too. So, I don't know how much of that is just the life there, or the history, or whatever, but it seems to be that there's a level of intrigue that I feel in the conversations that, if that's anything to go by, it'll be great to play there.
There's intrigue and all that, and then there's nice vegetarian food too.
There you go, perfect.
Intrigue and hummus
"Intrigue and Hummus," there's the name of the tour.