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Ever Still The Wild Colonial Boy: A Conversation With Devin Townsend

Talking at great lengths with the musical mastermind just prior to a Dreamsonic tour stop.

devin townsend, dreamsonic tour
Photograph by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

Words by Rohan (@ManVsPlaylist),

Photos by Ekaterina Gorbacheva (

at the YouTube Theater on July 25th, 2023:

During a brief pre-soundcheck window right before the final show in Los Angeles of his most recent Dreamsonic 2023 run on the road with Dream Theater, Devin Townsend was kind enough to carve out some time sit down with us at Heaviest of Art to catch up on his most recent tour in support of Lightwork (2022) and reflections on his career-spanning process of giving back to “the source”.


Dev, thanks for taking the time out to sit with us this afternoon. The touring schedule that you've come out of since the whole lockdown ended, you've had some of the acoustic shows, you've had the full "Empath" (2019) tour, and you're now on as a support act to the incomparable Dream Theater. Has this been kind of by design or is it more just scheduling gods?

Devin Townsend: I think you can retroactively claim anything is intentional, but I really feel that much of this is just circumstance. These tours come up and they either seem appropriate or they don't. And a certain amount of my reason for wanting to do the things that I've done recently is just to make up for some of the lost time as well. There's three years, essentially, of touring that didn't exist. And as much as the landscape of the music industry has changed and the landscape of the touring industry has changed, it's still really important to get out there if you want to promote your brand and move forward. So I've been doing what seems appropriate as a result of that, but without any at least on my side, without any direct strategy. I like to think that maybe management and record label have some degree of strategy that I'm not aware of, but regardless, I'm out and I'm playing and I'm enjoying it!

When you're out on a tour like this, you're clearly trying to reach and hit a new audience. Do you have ways that you consciously try and gauge how that has been quantifiably successful?

It's such a nuanced process to gain momentum while doing this. And by that I mean it's not just the show. The shows can be hit and miss just in terms of like sound or any one particular member of the band or the audience or sleep or anything. So there's that. But there's also the other 23 hours of the day and how to navigate the keeping of morale and any potential conflicts that may arise in terms of ego or money or anything like that. It can all, on such a subtle level, affect what ends up being put forward in terms of a performance. And when I think about the bands that are very successful, specifically the ones that have a degree of artistic sensitivity that's similar to mine, I think, man, I don't begrudge anybody of their success because it exists on all levels of this. People who don't do this for a living may think you're playing an iconic venue, whatever that is. Take any one of these Madison Square Gardens or anything like this and you think just the fact that you're going to be playing the show is like your golden moment. But there's like a psychological pressure that comes with that.

And then guests and then hometown shows with the family. You can try all you want, but you really have to sort of just surrender to the fact that it's a chaotic existence. And in order to do it properly and in order to reach the audience like you had suggested, it takes navigating all of these things, man. Just wrapping your head around the fact that maybe the place that the bus is parked is awful or something. You're in a parking lot for three days and you can't shit in the bus in the toilet or whatever. It's like these things affect you in ways that it's hard to overstate…

It's something that like 20 years of experience doing it doesn't necessarily make it any easier.

True. It makes you perhaps more prepared for these things to inevitably happen. So you're psychologically kind of bolstered against that. But a lot of these things are just down to chance and circumstance. And as a singer, for example, there's certain things that you're at the behest of. Sometimes your voice isn't great and oftentimes that coincides with scenarios where you wish it would be great.

But another part of the process is just learning to let that go as well. It's just a learning curve. And I'm grateful for it, actually.

devin townsend, devin townsend interview
Photograph by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

Touching on your voice, from my standpoint, the range and the strength of your voice now compared to some of your earlier albums just really grew. I don't know if you felt that you always had it in you, but what's been the regimen to work on that? Either both yourself personally or with a coach? Or is it just down to a growth in confidence?

Just stop drinking and smoking and be surprised at what happens! Yeah, I guess a little alcohol here and there is acceptable for a voice. But I think, really, your lifestyle and your mental health play a lot into your confidence. And I think that the process of singing has a lot to do with projecting confidence. There's certain things that are beyond your ability to control. Like after six weeks of doing it, it's not going to be as strong as it was, but really, you got to take it all with a grain of salt. And that includes being moderate in some ways as well. I haven't drank anything on this tour or whatever, but I think if I wanted to, allowing myself to is also a part of the process. And because it's almost like if I allow myself to do something, I'm much less likely to do it than if I say no. Allowing yourself that latitude, I think, plays into your mental health and all these things are connected to your ability to perform, in my opinion.

When you were first able to really expand your range hit some of those broader registers in your vocals, was that like found gold to you when that started to happen and you felt you could deploy this the way that you've been able to?

I think it happened under the radar. There was no one eureka moment where all of a sudden I was able to do these things. After hacking away at it for so many years, I guess I started to realize that my toolkit had a lot of different things in it that I could draw from, but I never consciously practiced it. I just kind of went for it. And then sometimes it would worked, right. Sometimes I would land it. And the goal has been to try and find ways to land it more consistently. As times have gone on, I've become more adept at that. But in the same way there was no strategy for this touring cycle, there was no strategy for my voice. It's just I have a voice that I can utilize as an instrument to articulate the work that I'm doing. And if there's something in my head that I feel that the music requires, I'll just force of will myself to achieve that. And then, I guess after you do things repeatedly, it becomes part of your arsenal, right?

Honestly, that’s pretty staggering to hear you made that leap by yourself! I was blown away, for example, at the performance on the “Acoustically Inclined – Live in Leeds” (2021) album. It is simply stupendous what you're able to do on that! I don’t know how else to say it….l listen to it and I’m constantly shaking my head and grinning at the whole performance.

Well I haven’t really listened to it! I mean, I listened to it enough to do it, but I don't listen to when people ask me about the voice or the music or anything like this, the questions come from a point of view of wondering what the technical process is for these things. And I don't mean to sound flippant, but I just do it. That's it. I just do it. And certain things I know are no good for it like lots of booze or drugs or anything. It's like awful for the voice. But in absence of that, you can usually do some pretty cool stuff. But I think that your voice is just a representative of your person. And so as you develop as a person, your voice is also, in theory, going to develop.

I want to touch upon some of the patterns that I've picked up on in your recorded work over the years and the inverse relationship from one album to the next, like the extreme orchestration in "Empath" that then leads to some of the more quieter, straightforward structures on "Lightwork". And I wonder if in your own personal life there's a similar push/pull in various different elements that operate on a similar level. Is what's happening in the creative output representative of what else is going on elsewhere?

100%. That's what it is. But I also would add to that that every time I do one thing and I've managed to hone in on an identity for it, it really takes all my emotional mental faculties so that when I'm finished it, oftentimes I do the opposite. Whereas "Empath" was very orchestrated, "Lightwork" inevitably would end up being more straightforward just because it's a break from that type of thinking. And I did this project during the pandemic called "The Puzzle" (2021) that was just completely abstract and so "Lightwork" ended up being very commercial as a result just because it's the juxtaposition I find interesting. Once I've done something that's very aggressive, it just seems inevitable that the next thing won't be because I've spent so much mental energy in the aggressive nature of the prior thing that you sort of tap out, right?

I wanted to have you think about the contrast in your song-writing approach over the arc of your career from, say, 25 years ago and I want to take two songs to use as reference points. And from my perspective, they're kind of addressing a similar topic or a similar theme. So one would be “Sit in the Mountain” and the next would be “Call of the Void”, both of which, to me, address topics of escapism or dealing with life's curveballs. I wonder in the way you approach those two particular songs, what is the difference between the Dev of today versus the Dev of 25 years ago?

The differences are almost entirely in the recording because the writing is very similar. There's always been different paths to write a song. Sometimes I do it on the computer, sometimes I write it on the guitar, sometimes I start with a vocal melody, sometimes I start with a synth melody, whatever. But I'm often chasing an internal aesthetic sense musically, like it's kind of a floaty thing or I tend to think of things in terms of colors, right? But once I've identified in my mind what it is that this is meant to represent, then it's just a matter of filling in the lines. And so the difference between “Sit In the Mountain” and “Call of the Void” is really I had done “Sit In the Mountain” in a basement studio with a couple of adat machines and a Roland GP 100, and then “Call of the Void”, you do it in a bigger studio and I've got like a home studio now. And so the ways that I'm able to articulate that I think are a lot more precise than they used to be. But really the intent and the songs themselves are all coming from, I would hazard to guess, that my methodology of writing, although the sounds and the style have morphed with me as I get older, has been the same since the very beginning, right.

devin townsend, dreamsonic tour
Photograph by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

It's not like I've gone through a fundamental creative change, but the aesthetics of how that creativity presents itself obviously change with time, but the way I do it and the way I feel and the way I get it out of my system is very similar.

Well, in thinking about that “mind's ear” as you were responding there, and you talk about “coloring in the lines”, when you hear the song or when you hear the vision per se and it starts forming, do you hear it in its most grandiose sense right from the outset? Do you get the feeling that something has the ability to expand into a much bigger bombastic sounding thing, versus something that's just a little more low key and a little more refined?

Yeah, I can get that sense of scale even in that formative phase of writing. I could be sitting with an acoustic guitar and know that it could be a bombastic thing based on what I hear in my mind's ear, like you suggest. But the thing that changes through time is your reason for doing it. I used to make bombastic music with Strapping, for example, a song like “Shitstorm” or “Oh My Fucking God”. And I didn't spend much time thinking about what the ramifications of that would be for me on a psychological or creative level. So now when I hear things from a formative stage, and it seems like you could get really epic with it, I think, okay, well, there's a certain degree of power that's contained within that. And if you choose to do that, sure, it's fine, but just know that whatever it is that that song is going to be about is going to be really big. So make sure it's something you can get behind or else you're going to resent it.

As those formative tracks come together and a demo starts to form and you've either gone down path A or path B or path fucking all the way out to Z, who's your trusted people that you bring in to seek either affirmation or give it a test listen? Do you have people that do that or is it I mean, I know you've trusted your own intuition from day one, but there must be a circle of folks that do give that support, right? Or is that not the case?

Less so than there used to be. And the reason why it's less so now is because a lot of the people who I trust tend to get married to the demos. So I'll show them the demos and then they'll like it and then I'll go make the record and come back and nine times out of ten they'll be like, oh, I like the demo more. And I find that to be a bit of a bum out!

So I tend to sort of hold these things on until the very end and then I'll run it past a handful of friends that I trust their opinion of and I'll sort of see how they react to it. But more so than playing it for them and asking their opinion, I'll play it and then just sort of get a sense of their body language. And you can tell pretty quick whether or not you're onto something.

In that same vein, back when "Ocean Machine" (1997) was in the can and you were trying to shop it, for a record that to me sits on a pedestal with few others, and you trust in it yourself, but you're not getting the response that you felt it should have gotten – who else was in your corner at that point in time to give you that moral support?

Well, that still exists. Things like "The Puzzle" and Dream Piece and things like that for me are also things that I think down the road people will recognize what it is as opposed to what it wasn't, right. But you have to just trust yourself because I think otherwise you can find yourself playing the resentment game where you think that you are being hard done by, where I don't I just think if it passes the litmus test that I think it's correct - then that's all it ultimately is going to matter! Right. And so the Me, Myself and I test is pretty first and foremost in my world.

devin townsend, devin townsend interview
Photograph by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

Ok so I’d like to change things up a bit here and throw a few curveballs at you. Do you yourself personally think about what music is going to play at your funeral?

Once or twice. I've thought that I like the song “Prabhujee” by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. But I mean, I’ve spent enough time thinking about mortality to be aware of the fact clearly that time is limited. But also a lot of the other parts of my process are rooted in trying to quantify that and make peace with it. So by the time I die, I'm cool with it. And with that in mind, it doesn't matter what plays of my funeral. I don't care. I won't be there.

Fair enough. Stealing a line from one of the tracks from the "Empath" record, “slow progress is still progress”: What right now in your life currently is the slow progress?

Well, there's so many things mind boggles, man! Everything is just a process. There's short term goals, and I regret being as goal oriented on that side as I tend to be because it's indicative of some sort of fear, I'm sure. But long term, man, I don't know if I've really got any direct goals other than just making peace with myself and dying in a good frame of mind. Other than that, man, it's all just things that I do. And they all have aspects of them that can develop over time, but none of those aspects are so important to me that they become my life's goal. They're just things that if we're doing this, then that can happen. And so why don't we pursue that? That's basically the process, right?

I’m curious over the years, as the fan base has grown, as social media has expanded one's access to you and you engage with that audience directly, how have you found being comfortable with receiving the intense adoration that your fan base gives you?

Well, it's a good question. The way I view it is music comes from a source that's beyond a musician, and your goal is to try to be a conduit to some degree of truth. And so if people resonate with the music, what I feel that they're resonating with is the same thing that I resonate with. And if people have adoration towards that, the easiest way for me to accept that is to accept that they have adoration towards the same thing that I have adoration towards. I can appreciate people being grateful of the effort that goes into articulating it because it is a lot of effort. But the music and the melodies and all that stuff, it's not me. It exists. And I'm just in a fortunate position to be able to hear it. So if people have adoration, I feel you, at least for me, I feel like I have a responsibility on some level to let that go and understand that what that adoration is going towards is something that's beyond me. And I'm grateful for that too! So I get it. But my work is I pride myself on the practical aspects of the work, much more so than anything esoteric.

I pride myself on the fact that it's a pain in the ass to edit drums or do file management or all these things. Right. So I tend to accept compliments on that level more authentically than someone saying “the music moved me”, because I think – well – that's what it's supposed to do, right?!? It moves me, too! Your goal is to get out of the way.

Yeah, man. That’s a really interesting answer. As far as the connection goes, I often find from people you just meet for the first time, and if there's a connection of a common album, that there is just an instant bond and an instant seeing eye to eye.

Well, I think it's that because that album touches on something universal.

devin townsend, devin townsend interview
Photograph by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

There's lots of music that does that. And every artist is just a different flavor of trying to reach that. And I think it's really important to give credit where credit is due. And for me, it's the source of the inspiration, whatever that may be. The muse or nature or mathematics or the universe or whatever is beyond me, clearly. So when people give me heartfelt compliments, I feel that I can give that to the source. And I'm comfortable with that.

Going back to where you're at on the current tour and the set list that you're playing, and speaking of being “comfortable”, I've noticed a couple of Infinity tracks in there. Does that represent a relationship with you to that material that's changed over the years?

Sure! I loved Infinity! It’s such a romantic period because I was so delusional, right. Like, you know, just my first foray into drugs and emotional instability and all these sorts of things, were as toxic as a period of my life as that became - the process of that discovery was just wonderfully romantic at the time. So when I think back to that period and I'm able to play that music, I still see through the idealistic eyes of that version of me at 25, 27 years old. And I appreciate it, right. Because what I was trying to do then, deluded as it may have been, was try to interact with that source of creative inspiration and the naivety that comes with those first experiences is delightful to hear for me! I still think it's great. So playing those songs live, I'm happy that I can now represent them in a more articulate way. It's like it sounds better to me now than it did then, so I'm proud of it.

I'm still blown away that after wrapping up an album with “Funeral”, “Bastard”, “Death of Music” and “Things Beyond Things”, that you then had the arrogance and then the confidence to still say, “I've got more in me, let's get right to it” and just keep going and still not having stopped since!!

Yeah, but it's what I do. I think that's fair to point out as well, because I think if it's viewed as you're doing some sort of service or it's some sort of altruistic agenda, then I think it can be viewed as kind of gross, actually. But for me, I'm compelled to make music and I love it. So it's less of a scenario of like, I finished this and now I'm going to get back on the saddle because we're trying to change the world. It was more just like, now I hear this, now I hear this, now I hear this. And a lot of the work that I've done in my personal and business life is to facilitate my ability to follow those thoughts. So it's less of a burden and more of a joy, right.

devin townsend, devin townsend interview
Photograph by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

A little self-referential at this point: I mentioned a while ago, I was at the no “Sleep Till Bedtime” recordings back in Melbourne in 1997, all those years ago. And I'm really curious to understand, from your perspective, for a tour that almost didn't happen, how were you able to get so much traction in the Australian market? And what you put that down to?

Well there wasn't a lot of bands touring down there at that time. I mean, we were not one of the first, but there was not a lot that was going on…

So was that conscious that you recognized that and said, “Let's go for it!”? Or was it just happenstance that you said – okay, we're in Japan, we're going to skip down and now we're here, and you realize “holy shit – they haven't seen a lot…!”….

Well when I was growing up, we had uncles that lived in Australia and my aunt lived in Australia and my grandfather had all these books of the folklore, and when I was a kid I really liked the soundtrack to the “Young Einstein” film. And there was just so much about Australia that was a part of my life! And because it's part of the Commonwealth in the same way that Canada is, there's always been a connection. So I'd always wanted to go there. And so when I was offered an opportunity to, they're like, “Okay: you have to sleep in a hostel, everybody in one room; you have to be in a van. It's like 40 hours drives between Sydney and Brisbane” or whatever it is. I was young enough to be like – “Fuck, YEAH, man!” And then my only stipulation with it was I was like, “I want to play someplace that no one's ever played!”. So they put us in Wagga!!

Ha! That's right, yeah!!

That was also the beginning of the Infinity period there. So there was a lot of romantic sort of youth that went into those decisions in that period of my life. I get along well with my friends who are Australian and it's a similar sense of humor and you know what it's like. I like the brutality of the metal that comes from there. Still do, man! I remember back in the day, it was all the Blood Duster stuff and everything. Now it’s King Parrot. I love it, right? So I think that there's a certain similarity there, but at the same time, there's no strategy! It was just like – “Do you wanna to go to Australia?” And I was just like “Fuck Yeah!!”.

Well, I mean, the contrast between slumming it in a hostel and then going around the corner to do an in-store and seeing a line like fucking 300, 400, 500 deep of kids wanting signatures. I mean, that must have been a bit of a mindfuck to begin with, too, right?

I didn't know how to perform as a result of it!! Because prior to that, we were on tour in America with Testament and Stuck Mojo and we were just eating shit every night! Like nobody seemed to get it! And as a result of that, I established this kind of on-stage personality where I would just yell at people. Like, the whole thing was I just tell everybody “Get fucked!!”. That was kind of the deal. And so I was used to that, that really antagonistic performance style. Then when we got to Australia and it was SO welcoming, I couldn't even perform! I didn't know what to do! Because my whole shtick was telling everybody to go fuck themselves! And then all of a sudden I was like – “Thank you, man!” – This is amazing. Right? It didn't take long, to be fair, for that to come back though…!!

And so what have the folks got to look forward to on your upcoming tour of Australia?

An amazing band. Best band that I've had. A great sound man, and a renewed energy on my side. It's really important for me to be able to perform this stuff and do this stuff to the best of my ability. And really it sounds cheesy, but the goal for me is I want to help in the ways that I can. And if the music has been of emotional significance to some people, like you suggested earlier, then my job is to try and do it to the best of my ability and that's what I bring to the table, you know what I mean? We don't have huge video walls. We don't have a paper mache bomber that lands in the audience or anything! But I think the show is better than it's ever been, ever! And I've got more energy. It's hard to tell that now at the end of a six week tour, haha! But I've got more energy in general now than I did when I was 25, right.

Well, I'm sitting here in Hollywood, and Hollywood loves an origin story. Any chance that we will ever see or hear the origin story of Cryptic Coroner?

Ha! Well I'd have to write it first…

Well you’ve got a few long haul plane rides coming up right?!?

Yeah, Ha ha! I'll let you know…I’ll put it on the list!

How long is that list right now man?

It's pretty long…

Yeah, but in all seriousness, the realm of ideas that are out there – are we talking like, five, ten, twelve…. Give me a sense if that's even quantifiable.

I'd say about 15. But each one of them can extend significantly because I'm also mired with home renovations and touring and trying to maintain income for the family and all these sorts of things, which on a practical level, require a lot of grunt work. So those things on the list, although I will get to all of them eventually, when I do, is still up in the air.

Yeah. Well, with that, I won't ask what's next, because I know that's always a constant shuffling of the deck…

Well I can tell you The Moth is symphony and sort of opera that I've been writing for a long time, and that comes out in 2025. But I've also got so many other things that I'm not going to commit to anything now because it can all change tomorrow.

Yeah, we've seen that happen too, all too frequently recently, right?

Yes, sir.

So The Moth at the Sydney Opera House. Let's not rule it out, right?!?

I would love to do that, man! And I hope to be able to. So until such time, man!


Experience Lightwork and stay tuned on all things Devin Towsend.

devin townsend
"Lightwork" (2022) Cover Artwork


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