TMF meets Devin Townsend

With new album Epicloud getting universal cheers (not least here), and a huge career-spanning, all-singing all-dancing live extravaganza around the corner, TMF scribe Dominic Hemy caught up with the madcap musical magician Devin Townsend for a chat about the past, present and future. Just don’t mention SYL…

With Epicloud now out there for all to hear, how are you feeling about the reaction to it from fans and critics?

It’s been interesting actually. At first I thought it wasn’t going to be accepted because it’s a lot more accessible; then I found it was accepted in a way more than I expected, but then there are also big detractors as I expected. For me it is one of twenty five records and I’ve never done one entirely in this style, so it seems inevitable to me.

What I’m doing after Epicloud is nothing like it, so it’s just a moment in time. But in general it is the right record for me to do at this time, that’s for sure, but I have to admit as well that as a result of this record I haven’t really been paying attention to the online reviews and either criticisms or praise, all that is just going to slow me down at this point. But from what I can tell, I hope people like it, and they seem to.

You’ve just finished a US tour with Katatonia and had your first chance at playing this live, so what were your favourites to play live? Anything go down particularly well or especially badly?

‘More!’ didn’t go down as well as I thought it would, but I think a lot of that has do with our performance of it; ‘Grace’ went down way better than I had hoped, which is good because it is so fun to play. ‘Liberation’ seems to be OK, it will be interesting to see how people react to that once more know the song. ‘Where We Belong’ is actually really cool, that one works consistently really well, and ‘Lucky Animals’ of course because it is just such a dopey song that people have no choice but to give up and enjoy it.

I’m surprised ‘More!’ didn’t go down so well.

I think it’s because the first couple of times we played it, I found it difficult to sing and I had some background vocals on tape that totally interrupted it, so I might have to remix all that stuff. A lot of what we do with our background tapes is not because that is necessarily what we are trying to have as our show, but because we can’t afford to have a choir and have Anneke come out all the time, so I try and augment the songs by including the parts that aren’t there, and sometimes it works because it becomes a little more transparent, but sometimes, especially if it’s a new song, it sticks out like a boner in sweatpants.

But at the same time you have to be able to experiment with it, so with a new record the only well to tell if it is going to work is trial by fire; every time you do a new song you have fifteen people with smartphones posting it on YouTube, so you’re doomed to see the shittiest possible version of that performance for the next six months.

How did the partnership between yourself and Anneke van Giersbergen strike up?

I guess it started with her sending me a clip of her singing ‘Hyperdrive’, a song from Ziltoid, and I remember thinking “wow, that’s fucking nice!”. I’ve always loved her voice, and to hear her sing one of my songs is very flattering. I was doing Addicted at the time, and I always tend to write for female vocals, so I asked her to come out and sing on that. So she did, and we found we got along well and did a bunch of shows together.

When it came to the time to do Epicloud I knew what I relied on her voice for and I knew what sort of a personality she has, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for Epicloud. The energy between a female singer and a male singer, it’s a very fine line between it being something personal and something that is for the sake of the audience; I think a lot of times you find when you listen to a pair singing together they are singing to each other, the Robert Plant and Allison Kraus thing, as nice as it is, they are still singing about each other and their relationship, and that’s not what I’m looking for.

I’m looking for a strong female voice and a strong male voice to sing about relationships in general and not have the interpersonal shit cloud it up, and I think it is very difficult to do that if you’re not singing with someone who is very similar to you. Both Anneke and I have been through the metal wringer and we’re the same age, have kids, we’re both married, there’s a lot of similarities there, so when we sing together it’s more “right, let’s fucking do this!” than some doe-eyed singing to each other, which I don’t have much patience for.

You’ve now re-recorded the track ‘Kingdom’ too for this album with Anneke, so why now, why that one in particular?

It’s a track we’ve started to play live, and it’s become really good. Another reason is that I always though the Physicist record sounded terrible, but I do like the music and the intention of it, but the songs never got a fair shot. I plan to redo all of the songs from it at some point, and ‘Kingdom’ seemed to be the first choice because we knew it already. The third reason is that the initial intention of ‘Kingdom’ was more of an apology for a whole load of stuff in my life that had gone sour; but now fifteen years after I’d written it, it’s more of an affirmation of where I am at, and all those pieces together ended up being an appropriate reason for me to do it here.

You’re back in the UK shortly for this monumental The Retinal Circus show, so how are preparations coming along for that?

It’s going to be one of two things, it is going to be epic either way – if it’s going to be a success it’s going to be an epic success, and if it’s a failure it’s going to be an epic failure. So regardless, I think it is going to be interesting for those who are watching.

How are you pulling such a big project all together?

On the technical front, we’ve delegated it to several different parties; the band has the music, and we’re all constantly practising that, but we’re practising it in the order with the dialogue, around all the performances that are going on through the show. The circus elements have got the same script and the same music, so they’re practicing with all that. So everyone’s rehearsing to the same thing independently, so hopefully when we all come together for the two dress rehearsals, it’s going to work. But ultimately The Retinal Circus is a very low budget example of what I hope to do in the future, the more West End musical sort of vibe that I hope Ziltoid 2 will be. But at this point, we don’t have a big budget and we don’t have a lot of time to put it together, but we’re all working extraordinarily hard to make something work, that if it comes off, could be awesome.

What can we expect from the show?

I’m going to keep a lot of it a secret as I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag entirely, but it is a retrospective of my career; I’ve got twenty years of music to be represented. I think I’m finding a moment in my career here to finally introduce myself to new generations of people, and in order to do that I’ve got a lot of music that I think never got a fair shake. I’ll be using it to give a broad overview of my career, and what I hope happens from it is that enough interested will be generated so that when the time comes to do Ziltoid 2 I’ll be able to get a serious budget to put together an actually musical.

And I’m hoping that we play this well enough and people see through the DIY elements of it to see the potential that this group of people can offer and maybe in the future we can do a completely absurd musical statements that use heavy metal as a starting point, but ultimately is much more in line with musical theatre than anything else.

Epicloud is out now via InsideOut Music, and Devin Townsend brings The Retinal Circus to the Camden Roundhouse on Saturday 27th October.

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