Devin Townsend on Creativity During the Pandemic and ‘Order of Magnitude – Empath Live, Vol 1’ (INTERVIEW)

If you’ve ever heard Devin Townsend’s music, you know that it is huge. His signature wall of sound densely packs in orchestras, choirs, layered perfectly with guitar tracks, soaring operatic vocals mixed with cutting screams, and dozens and dozens of unique instrumentation. If you’ve seen him live at all within the last decade, you also know that the sound of the record is immaculately captured, not only through great musicianship, but with backing tracks to help beef it up and recreate an atmosphere of a band quadruple the size.

For Townsend’s European tour last year, he decided to try something he hadn’t in quite some time: to remove himself from the constraints of click tracks and backing tracks and to create a sound solely from the players you see on stage. The results are seen in a new live album/DVD called Order of Magnitude, filmed during a tour stop at The Roadhouse in North London. As a deviation from a lot of Townsend’s other live work, his new 10-piece band embraces jamming, new arrangements, and a visual feast to form the show into an interesting narrative. We caught up with Townsend to talk not only about the new show, but how he’s adjusting to being a musician during an unprecedented pandemic.

I saw you back in March at your tour stop in Houston and the show was incredible, but you were very, very sick. After the next stop you guys had in Dallas, the tour was completely shut down. What was it like not only having that tour cancelled, but sitting here not having been able to play live for the last 6 months?

Although I really enjoy the creative process and being in the studio, I enjoy touring because it’s important to me to bring it to people. Specifically to people who support it and I’m so fortunate to have the audience that I do. They’re so supportive and they’re so kind overall. Not being able to play for people that we said we were going to play for sucks. On a financial level it sucked too. It was a huge loss. But I was sick and when they said “you’re gonna go home,” I was like, dude, I had a brutal flu. Luckily it wasn’t COVID, but I got the test for it. They stuck the thing up my nose and the whole works. So when they said “you’re going home tomorrow,” there was a part of me that was like “oh, okay.” [laughs] You know what I mean? I was okay with going home at that point just because I was beat. But all the real reasons, other than just being sick, sucked. That was no good.

One of the things that was noticeably different from this show and the North American Empath tour was that you constructed it differently with the absence of backing tracks, whereas previously the sound was really close to the record and layered and textured. I found that interesting considering that Empath is some of your most complex work. What inspired you to take some of your most complex work and do it in a different format? 

Well, a couple of reasons. I realized over the course of interviews today that anyone in North America has only heard the audio, which is unfortunate because this is meant to be a visual experience. But c’est la vie. It was important for me to do it because I felt like as a scene and as a style of music, it has become really prevalent for things to be absolutely perfect all the time. Although there’s that aspect of articulation and detail that is a huge part of what I do, I felt to a certain extent that playing to backing tracks exclusively for the past 10 years or so…it becomes less of a performance and more of a pantomime sometimes.

Having access to some of these musicians that I did…there’s 10 people on stage, there’s Mike Keneally, Morgan Agran, Nathan [Navarro], Diego [Tejeida], Che [Aimee Dorval] and the singers. It’s such a fantastic group of musicians and simultaneously getting past that stigma of everything to a tape and everything having to be this and every night it’s the same show and there’s the same amount of space between the songs…to bring it back to something a little bit more human, I think was going to be very refreshing not only for me but hopefully the audience because then it’s like you’re participating in music again. There’s a lot of directions it could go and if something screws up…to have that talent pool where you can take that wherever you want to go…every night was different.

When we were in America for that tour, we didn’t even have a set list. I would just think of songs and say “okay, this song now,” and we’d play it. On a personal level, to be able to start to participate in things like that was creatively gratifying to me. Not only because I’m not getting as bored of it but also because it’s a risk. My goals as an artistic entity are to progress. Without taking risks, there’s no progression. You just stay the course. It really worked for me. It was really a great experience and it was really a great way to test myself and see where I was at and the progress there within. By the time it was over, I felt like I had participated in something really special.

I watched the show last night and I didn’t look at the setlist because I wanted to experience it fresh. My favorite section, which was unexpected because I didn’t know it was in there, was the section of songs you played from your album Ki. Are those particular songs something you had in mind from the get go? Or was that something that came about once you had arranged the band? 

This tour was a real personal one for me and I really wanted to do it for me. Which, as a sideline, is a lot of the reason why this Volume 2 green screen concert I did included all the Strapping Young Lad stuff and the more heavier stuff. I felt like after I had done this Volume 1 that was for me, it was only fair that I would say “okay here’s something for the audience too.” As I have gone through the career, there’s been a number of songs: “War,” or “Truth” or “Gato” that are my personal favorites. Because I had decided that in a lot of ways this tour was going to be very self-serving, I wanted to do it with these 10 brilliant players and I wanted to have the backing screens. The overhead for that was extensive. So I thought if it is for me, and you’re giving yourself a treat, then do the songs that you want to do. Those were ones that meant a lot to me.

In terms of the construction of the show, there’s some really interesting stuff that happens. There’s the “Disco Inferno” cover that’s really unexpected. There’s the new arrangement of “Spirits Will Collide,” which is a beautiful arrangement. And another highlight which was Morgan’s solo. How did it come about in terms of the way that you constructed it from conception of having the show to the way that it grew once the band came together? 

What I typically do is, I have an overarching vision for whatever the project is. In this case it was this tour, but it could be the record, it could be Ziltoid or it could be a story. There’s always a vision that I have that is broad enough that there’s room for wiggling within it. I guess the vision that I had for this was that I wanted to use the back catalogue as a way to create an emotional arc that, in a sense, describes the passage between going into a frame of mind that was getting depressed or despondent and then fighting to get out of it. Then when you’re out of it, there’s a sense of a celebratory experience. When I was trying to search for a theme for Empath I had this book and I kept writing “what is it that this is about? Where are you?” I came up with all these things and when I finally realized that I was depressed, the record became this analogy of “how do you work yourself out of this?” I’m talking about me and my physiology and all the things involved. But how do you find ways to confront these fears and these anxieties and all these things head on. So if you listen to Empath it does have all these variations in terms of dynamics. With the show I tried to mirror that in a sense. It starts off with you on vacation and everything is chill and everybody is drinking booze and whatever. Then it goes into the dark and then it gets darker and darker and darker. Then there’s a level of being blown wide open with “Deadhead.” Then it’s about working your way out of it. To find that arc with a stage show, I thought was a really interesting theme because then we could illustrate it with the costume changes and visuals and have these musicians that, because we’re not on click tracks and backing tracks, if things went in another direction it was okay.

To make that happen, obviously, the logistics of that were absurd. But I started by visiting each of the 10 people individually where they were. Markus was in Berlin, Diego came to Vancouver from Mexico. Kenneally was in San Diego. Morgan was in London and Che was in Vancouver. Nathan was in Boston. I kept going to people and I brought them sessions first. I said “this is what you’ll be hearing. And here’s a single track with what your part is for that song is. So if you could go ahead and learn that part, I’ll come to you and we’ll rehearse it. Then we get together for those 10 days in Manchester to put the tour together with all the visuals and everything, at least we’ll have a vague idea of what it is that is going to make this work. I’m fortunate that there’s a lot of brilliant people involved, but I’m also fortunate that I can delegate. So I can say to Mike St. Jean, for example, for the visual, this song is chaos. This song is on the beach. This song, we’re in Alaska. Then I can focus on other things while he carries on with that. So everybody, I delegated to. Whether or not it was the guitar techs, down to the costumes. So I got to spend a fair amount of time, doing nothin’. Which was awesome. That’s kinda how I like doing it. I like being able to say “here’s the idea” and all my effort goes into telling people what it should be, and then going to watch Rick and Morty or something. By the grace of God, it came together and hooray! [laughs]

You have said that with Volume 1 you wanted to embrace the chaos of it all and the human element. With the by request Volume 2 show, you had said that you wanted everything tightly played on that. What was your frame of mind for deciding that you wanted each of these a certain way and is there anything planned for Volume 3? 

It’s all a reaction. I think that oftentimes people confuse the reactionary nature of what one project is following another with something much more complicated. To explain that further, when I start doing something, no matter what it is, if I’m fixing a screen door or mowing the lawn, I put a ton of effort into whatever it is I’m doing, to the point where, frankly, often times when I’m finished I’m just sick of it. I’m like “oh God, all my effort into making that. We’ve got this trajectory and all the people and the clothes” and all this sort of stuff. So when I went to do the next thing, as opposed to my decision to make Volume 2 tight and almost inhuman in a way was not to be provocative, but just because I had kind of exhausted all the energy I had for the opposite. So Volume 3 will probably be different than both of them because, I think frankly , I’m very easily bored. [laughs]

Throughout the pandemic times, and I guess through necessity, you’ve been productive with a lot of different stuff. You started out putting music, you’ve done podcasts, you’ve done quarantine concerts. I’m super interested in the Twitch element. I’ve watched a bunch of your Twitch streams and I think it’s a really interesting way to connect directly with your audience and I’m wondering what that experience has been like and if you can see yourself doing any of these new things past the pandemic. 

I’d like to think that I will, actually. I think a lot of times as artists we get so wound up in our own world that we don’t actually directly see what’s going on with the people who are participating with your work. When I do, it’s really touching. A lot of these people who have maybe some sort of emotional investment in my work; these are people with really functional lives. These are people with a whole reality scheme that I’ve got no connection to. There’s obviously people who are musicians or unemployed or whatever, but there’s also people that are doctors or lawyers or teachers. When you see that these things that you do and you obsess about contribute to others in a real tangible way, like Twitch does, it gives you a real incentive to continue because it allows you to understand what the value of what you’re doing is. I think maybe there was a period of time where people would overestimate the value and they’d say “we’re doing miracles with our art.” I think what this allows you to see is that it’s not that you’re making miracles, what you’re doing is that you’re a part of society and what you bring to the table is that. I’ve spent my entire life learning how to make music and sing and play guitar and record. As a member of society, that’s what I can provide. That’s what I bring to the table. By interacting directly with the audience, to a certain degree, it becomes clear that you are contributing to something.

I think a way to combat the divisiveness and negativity, is to rely on each other to provide what we provide. This is what I bring to the table and seeing it first person with these new ways of interacting with the audience has been humbling, in a weird way. It makes me really want to make sure that I can continue doing it. It’s just time, that’s the thing. There’s just no time. I started at 6 AM today and started interviews shortly thereafter. But amidst that, the kid’s gotta go to the doctor, I’ve got all these emails coming in and I’m getting all these tracks ready for the quarantine show and I’ve got another podcast that I’m doing. Then there’s dinner and my parents need help. You know what I mean? I usually start around 6 and end around midnight. Even at that, as I’m sure is the same with you or anybody else, you’re just like “where’d the day go? I didn’t get anything done.”

You’ve been talking about doing a lot of writing lately. I know previously what you were working on was “The Moth,” and now you’ve been talking about a project that you’ve called “Lightwork.” What is the status of those?

What I tend to do when I’m working on things is I call things what springs to my mind and then it morphs. That one’s not sitting right with me quite yet, but who knows. The problem with “The Moth” is that fundamentally my point I was trying to make with that point with that project, specifically in light of the pandemic is really nihilistic. There’s a lot of artists now that are saying “we’re writing really brutal music in reaction to this.” But for me personally, that’s not what I need right now. I don’t need brutal, ugly shit. As much as I like it…I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying for me. My opinion. That’s not what I want right now. So I kind of put “The Moth” aside because it’s ugly, fundamentally. That’s what its purpose is. So I started writing before I made that decision because the more I wrote the more I realized that that’s not what is coming out of me. So my process of creative fulfillment over the years has really been follow the thing you’re most compelled to do. So if I tried to continue with “The Moth” because I had made a commitment to it, my heart wouldn’t be into it. I’d just end up making this lackluster thing that would cost me a lot of money and probably bum a bunch of people out. So I just followed the compulsions in the other directions and it’s turning into this other thing that, although not defined yet, is really interesting.

Has the pandemic changed the way that you write, record and eventually release music? 

Yeah, in the frequency of it. I’ve always enjoyed doing something and releasing it immediately but up to this point management and label have been like “no no no, you can’t do that. 3 months of a presale,” and all this sort of shit. So, the fact that I can say “I wrote something, here it is!” or “I’m writing a demo, here it is!” has been really cool for me, actually, because I get excited about things and I want to share them.

But really other than that, I’ve got more time in the studio…but it’s uninspired time which is really weird. Somebody said the other day “man, you’ve got all this time in the studio now and you can just write.” And I’m like “yeah, i’ve been wanting this for my whole career,” yet this is the least inspiring time that I’ve had creatively since I’ve begun, really.

There’s a certain amount of anxiety and anger or fear or all these things that come along with the pandemic but I’ve got a limited amount of time in the day and a limited amount of energy and I’m gonna invest it into that? Nah. I’d rather just go for a walk. It’s different in that it’s more immediate but in other ways…it’s the same that it always has been. And in some ways, it’s even slower than it was before because I don’t have a lot of experience right now. I usually write and draw from the experiences I’ve had and the experience I’ve got now are just like holy shit, do you want me to write a song about making sure that your mother is not freaking out because somebody at the store wasn’t wearing a mask or something? I mean, it seems like a lot of effort and I can’t find the chords to put it to. So, fuck it. [laughs]

Order of Magnitude – Empath Live, Vol 1 is now available.

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