Feeling Empathic: Devin Townsend Talks ‘Empath’ (INTERVIEW)

Throughout his nearly 25-year solo career, Devin Townsend has put an emphasis on not labelling his output as any one given thing. As he moves to a new era of his career, Townsend has constructed a new album, Empath, to take all of his influences and styles into one over-arching theme and to create an album that unapologetically merges them into not only an album but in some cases, a single song. Townsend spoke with us about how not only his career has emerged over time, but how he has grown as a person and how it has manifested in his music.

 

When reading the concept and your goals for Empath, it may be easy to call it an “experiment.” But listening to the album a few times, it is very clear that this is very meticulous work. Can you talk a little bit about how long this album has been gestating and whether your vision for it matches or is different than the final product?

I would say in total, it gestated for about three years (which is typical) and the actualization of the recording was over the last 18 months of that process. I think that although my process tends to be chaotic, it ends up meticulous by the end when all the pieces start to fall into place. I would say ultimately that there is really only ‘one way’ of making these albums, but the process and all the drama that it includes is often about blindly removing things that simply don’t feel “right.” My initial vision for these things is ultimately what I’m pursuing, and that exists on an intangible level. By that I mean: I know what it IS NOT, far before I know what it IS.

In just the nature of the number of genres covered, sometimes within a single song, Empath can be seen as a challenging listen. Would it be fair to call it challenging, and how has it felt to put music out there that may take a listen or two to fully digest and get oriented to?

I would go one step further and say that its emotionally intrusive at first. Someone had used the word “violating” but I don’t agree with that in the sense of it being a mean-spirited statement. Ultimately, like all the albums, (and as I stated in the prior question): I simply know what it “is not” until I’m left with what it “is.” This can lead to the realization during some projects that “oh shit…this is going to be a challenging listen,” yet at that point, my only obligation is to see it through accurately. Sometimes that leads to things like Epicloud and sometimes it leads to things like Alien. My hope at any given time is that it’s simply accurate.

When you want to make an album that clearly maps out a lot of different genres that you’ve at least touched on in the past, is there any pressure to make it “sound” like a Devin Townsend song and have that influence the way that it comes out? Or with this or any other album, is it always a pure distillation and uncompromised version of the music that you want to make?

It’s about the uncompromising nature of it all. If I’m being honest: I’ve been doing this for long enough now that it’s going to sound like a Devin Townsend record whether or not I’d like it to!

In an interview around the time Transcendence came out, you made a remark that you weren’t all that interested in singing…and in another interview more recently, you stated that Chad from Nickelback gave you some advice to turn your vocals up. Has your opinion on your vocals changed at all in that time?

Yes, it has changed. I now like it even less than I did back then! Honestly, singing sucks. The voice is unpredictable and it makes you vulnerable. You have to take care of it etc., and my voice is unfortunately unusually delicate. The combination of all this provides a type of low level anxiety while on tour that never really goes away. If my voice is healthy and I’m having a good night, what I feel is relief much more than enjoyment.

Throughout not only leading up to Empath, but also with Transcendence, you have put documentaries on YouTube of not only the production of the album, but your thesis for the albums and in the case of Empath, really opening up about your process leading up to the album. Walk me through the significance of these videos and if they help you make even more sense of the product you’re making.

In the past with Strapping Young Lad, Infinity, and even parts of other albums, I experimented with including “lack of accountability” as a theme when it came to the writing- Feeling that in a sense the artist’s responsibility for their work ends upon release. Although I feel there is much truth to that, I find it important to be as clear as I’m able to be about my intention now. In the past, my work had unfortunately been misinterpreted in ways I was really uncomfortable with, so to the best of my ability nowadays I try to provide clarity to my intentions through these avenues.

You mention in the documentary that each album is a self-actualized version of how you are feeling at that time…it seems like maybe with Addicted and Epicloud, there was a shift to kind of poppy, happy, and optimistic music …or perhaps optimism in the midst of chaos…that really felt like a calling card of that phase of DTP…was that an intentional shift?

It was, and in honesty: the “uber positivity” was something I began to feel uncomfortable with after awhile. There is a lot of validity to positive thinking, (to be sure) yet to think that all you need to do is “think positive” to make your dreams come true is obviously not true. (A woman friend of mine once commented “That type of positive thinking is great, provided you are a white male…”) The ramifications of the decision to forego anything negative at that time was that I found myself getting a reputation as ‘the positive guy’ and people even started thinking I had some sort of answers.

Therefore, it was important for me on Empath to recognize both sides of the equation. I think much of my fear recently had been rooted in not wanting to face uncomfortable truths about myself, and that ultimately began to stunt creative growth. On some level, I believe in my past I had blamed drugs, alcohol and circumstance for my anger or confusion, and failed to understand that many of my poor choices were simply due to my own choices. Therefore, to be more realistic this time around about my nature seemed essential. This involved re-evaluating uncomfortable parts of my personality and analyzing my relationship with those parts and how they influenced my creativity. I believe that the result is a more balanced output, and an approach to things I that maybe doesn’t provide as much comfort on some level, but also doesn’t delude itself. Life is both positive and negative, and its less about “choosing a side” and more about not letting these thoughts define you. Ultimately intuition is a powerful force and I believe our true nature is that of love, so self-acceptance required investigation into some long held thought patterns so I could trust that my intuition would not intrinsically lead me astray.

Has your approach towards metal changed over the years and what parts of your growth as a person influenced how heavy material manifests itself in your work?

Life is fluid. We all change. I believe those who are not willing to incorporate updated views and consequent realizations into one’s lifestyle often miss out on the non-binary nature of life. Nothing is black and white… nothing. I believe that to accept one’s nature (in all its ferocity or gentleness) also requires accepting that we simply don’t know everything. And to not be willing to adjust your personal reality based on new information we gather during this trip leads to fear and stagnation (in my experience). I’ s all about facing that fear on some level, and as such, the nature of all our emotions, from aggression to love or depression…whatever…are constantly in need of analysis if we wish to be in the presence of some sort of creative truth.

In the documentary you’re able to be vulnerable and describe how your connection to Empath was different than any other in that you weren’t thinking about it as much when you stopped recording for the day. Your opinion may have changed since those recordings, but are you able to put out an album or even an individual song without knowing its exact meaning to you?

I felt by the end of the record I ended up losing the plot a little, to be fair! I had to become obsessive to see this one through, and that was harder at this age that it was in the past. I believe I have many songs that I don’t know the “exact” meaning of… yet at the very least, I feel I have a strong sentimental attachment to what it means. Emotions are hard to put into words, but we can at least be cognizant of the gist of these things.

At some point you had referenced you had 4 album ideas in the works and most recently you’ve talked a little bit about The Moth as being your next project. Has the production of Empath and getting everything out there in an uncompromising way changed not only your approach to songwriting, but the direction of The Moth or any other future album?

Nah, not really. The only thing that tends to happen is record themes morph into each other sometimes. Again, I feel there is a vague awareness of what the albums are and to that end, I believe that those 4 records I spoke of will refine themselves over time…often merging into existing album ideas, or simply not sustaining interest. However, I still have 4 album ideas in the works, though the nature of each has evolved since I gave that interview.

You have always had very unique ways of performing your live shows, but Empath is so complex. Where do you even start with performing these songs live and do you have any plans for what these performances will look like?

Oh man…fucked if I know. Ask me again in a few months!

Read our review of Empath here.

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