Interview: Devin Townsend Talks Empath, Australian Tour & More

Canadian progressive heavy music genius, Devin Townsend, will be coming back to Australia this September for a very special ‘An Evening With’ solo acoustic tour. The intimate evenings will feature Devin performing tracks from across his catalogue, as well as taking part in a Q&A where fans will get to know more about what Devin is up to at this stage in his career and the newly released album, Empath. This will prove to be a unique & special experience for all in attendance. Before he does though, we caught up with the man himself and delved into such topics as his latest album, his love for Australia, collaborations and lots more.

Hey Dev, what’s happening at the moment? I’m good man. I am in the midst of a torrential downpour of Australian interviews. (Laughs) I’m at home in Vancouver; it’s summer, which is nice. I’m busy with a lot of interesting little things but I’m taking more time than usual just to chill, smell the flowers and I’m doing ok, brother. Empath as a whole seems like a rebirth for your career. Was that a conscious effort?

Yeah, in fact, it was really important for me to go through my entire career and make connections to how I related to every part of that creative process. How do I feel in relation to the heavy stuff, the quiet stuff to DTP to Strapping? I use the project as a way to find some sort of balance in my creative mind where I didn’t have to fight myself – to try and repress the tendency to be heavy or to consciously be happy, any of the parameters I’ve put on myself over the years.

Empath served as a vehicle to really knock down those walls and it was a very difficult project to do and it took a lot of people, manpower, capital, mind and when it was done, I felt like I’d broken through something that I’d been wanting to break through for many years and now moving forward, I feel like the sky’s the limit in a lot of ways.

Awesome. So how did the songwriting process differentiate compared to DTP and the likes? It’s not much different to DTP. How I tend to write is I’m on my own and I just write, write, write, write and then I present things to the musicians that I feel would be appropriate for that particular material and let them hear it and allowing them to have a voice and their own interpretations and I’ve continued that with Empath. But the process is not that much different than gosh, Punky Bruster really. It’s just me writing but the way it gets articulated has changed over the years but overall, it’s the same.

I find with Empath is quite a collaborative effort. You have a whole bunch of old friends such as Steve Vai, Anneke van Giersbergen that is great, but the one that stuck out for me and many was Chad Kroger (of Nickelback) – it certainly raised a few eyebrows. Yeah, circumstance led us to become acquaintances together and we spend some time strangely enough and he invited me into his world and I spend a few days taking part in his crazy fucking world, man. I learned a lot through those interactions in ways I didn’t expect especially by being around him that how his process is very similar to mine, yet the person he is generates the type of music they do. I always attribute that commercial type of music to be a conscious choice.

Maybe those who write that kind of music secretly wanted to write strange prog, but that’s how they ended up manifesting that stuff. I didn’t realise until I got into it that it wasn’t a conscious decision, it’s something that he just does. The process is in that what he does is similar in what me being me ends up.

You really enlisted some musicians with some serious skills and chops such as Mike Keneally (legendary American guitarist), Seamus Paulicelli (YouTube Drummer & Decrepit Birth, Morgan Agren (Swedish Jazz / Prog drummer) and it really works so well within the dynamic.

A lot of it for me is in DTP, I was aware of the parameters that the band imposed on my creative identity. As great as they were, there were certain things they couldn’t do. It’s not they weren’t great musicians, they weren’t that type of musician or they weren’t into it. As my music started to change, I thought this is my opportunity to get the right people and to not put limits on it. If you want to put a lot of blast beats on it, get the blast beat guy or improvisational jazz, get one of those cats, get specialists for each idea and in turn, I felt free to articulate all of those crazy ideas in unabashed ways – there was no compromise on this album, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years.

The album’s artwork is quite visually stunning. Was there an inspiration behind the piece or just did it come out through the writing process? The artwork was actually done before I even started the album. With artwork over the years, I have a vision that’s very vague, but as I’m not a visual artist, I try to articulate that to people and try to make a head start on it. With Epicloud for example, by the time that record was finished, I was like you don’t have a cover, what the fuck do you do for a cover? Sadly, it inevitably became a logo and that’s happened before with Alien and Physicist, there ere a lot of time where I couldn’t start the artwork fast enough so I made a decision years ago to make sure the artwork is very important in the process especially if you are releasing a physical product.

So the idea with the artwork was to be about finding balance in a fundamentally bipolar world where not only as humans do we have profound beauty, peace, love and tranquility, but we also have horror, rape, war, murder and all these horrible things, so the island on the Empath art is meant to represent the consciousness and all the creatures that inhabit this island are the thoughts within the consciousness. You will see monsters in the water, but at the same time, you see peaceful turtles and what have you. It’s really to present the duality of it all, but how do you get past as an artists to observe those things, but not let one strictly define you. It became a theme of the record and going back exploring songs like Hear Me or Singularity that have very dramatically heavy aspect to them required me not to be afraid of them, but not letting them define me. That’s what the artwork is an analogy for.

So you are coming out for some acoustic shows in September, what can we expect from these shows from a setlist and performance perspective? So setlist wise, it varies every night, there’s always requests. In the past, I’d done guitar clinics there where it was lots of speaking and me noodling on guitar, this isn’t that. This is the first iteration of the Empath tour cycle that acts as a way for me to strip it all back to nothing and represent a lot of music from the back catalogue be it Strapping, Ghost or whatever and represent it in a way that expresses the emotional content of what I do is just me and a guitar in the same way with an orchestra or with a band or what have you. There’s a certain amount of intimacy in these shows as there is no hiding but it’s also not the stereotypical acoustic shows that people would expect, they are clearly my songs presented in the most fundamental way possible. The tour enables me to express myself and explain the whole Empath process, answer questions and meet people; it also allows me to start from zero.

By the time I get back to Australia with another full band by playing the full catalogue, I’ll be able to figure out and refine the little things that were not quite write with the last few bands I’ve had, this is an important tour for me.

With Australia, you’ve been here numerous times, probably 20 plus times easily. What’s a moment that sticks out in your memory of your past visits?

I remember on the very first tour I did, travelling from Melbourne to Sydney in a van. (Laughs) There were like 10 of us crammed in there and going through forests and before you knew it, being in a desert, being near mountains and being by the beach. The overwhelming scope of Australia was something special to me as we grew up with the folklore of it and I had family living there, there was always pictures and elements of it in my mind, when I finally got there, it was so inspiring to me.

A lot of the connection in my music comes from my connection to nature in some way, that’s why I like being in Vancouver, around the mountains, the rain, the water and what have you. Australia was dramatically inspiring to me, especially on that run just because of the nature alone. I could talk for hours on the experiences I’ve had in Australia alone. The first show on the first Strapping tour, I didn’t know what to expect and showing up to this sold out room and not knowing how to deal with it, I was so used to Strapping being this antagonistic band where no one gives a shit and I get up on stage telling everyone to go fuck themselves to the point of we were in Australia with sold out shows where people were super into into it, I didn’t know what to do. (Laughs) I didn’t know how to do my shtick I didn’t want tell people to go fuck themselves, as I was really grateful.

I remember being in hostels years ago there and writing Bad Devil, Olives, Planet Rain and all of these songs, playing Soundwave Festival and recording Epicloud in Perth. Australia has been a huge part of my musical identity.

I know Canada is home and you wouldn’t change it, but have you ever thought about migrating to Australia permanently one day? I could see it. I think the only drawback from it happening is that my immediate family are afraid of spiders. (Laughs) I keep telling them, it’s beautiful there, but they open the internet and start looking at all those crazy spiders like Golden Orb Weaver or Huntsman’s and I go, I know I know, but they are usually up high and they are usually up high and not in your house. They can’t kill you. So far it hasn’t been a winning battle. (Laughs) My case wasn’t helped by a video of a spider eating a bird, where as my interactions with the wildlife of Australia have been nothing but great and everywhere has the creepy crawlies. It’s going to take a fair bit of work to get my significant other to pass her morbid fear of spiders. (Laughs) With your son, has he gotten into your music or taken up anything musically? You know what it’s like, man. What Dad does isn’t cool, but I know people who are in bands that you and I think are the shit and their kids are like that’ so uncool. I guess it’s the lineage of being a father. My son is interested in music, but not enough to pursue it and you know what, I’m cool with that. Music is a hard job and I’ve been very fortunate in it, but if your heart isn’t into it, it can take you down. That all said, I support whatever he chooses to do.

So, for a bit of fun, if you could go back to your younger self and give him some advice, what would it be? (Laughs) First thought that comes to mind is something that I should probably keep to myself. But the first thing I would say is enjoy your hair while it’s there! (Laughs) With these parting words, do you have anything to say to your Australian fans before you come back again in September? It means so much to be coming back, especially for this intimate acoustic run of shows and when I bring the new band and it’s a band I’ve been working towards putting together my whole career, so get ready! Thanks for your time, Dev. It’s been great talking to you today. My pleasure, brother!

Tickets for 'An Evening With Devin Townsend' can be purchased HERE.

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