Canadian singer, musician and songwriter Devin Townsend is arguably the living, breathing definition of a cult figure. There's still a massive percentage of this country that has absolutely no idea who he is at all, but those aboard the Devin train utterly adore him.
Townsend first came to the attention of heavy rock fans when, after being plucked from obscurity as a young man, he was asked to provide vocals on guitar hero Steve Vai's 1993 album Sex & Religion. The "Down Deep Into the Pain" single in particular earned some serious airplay. A year later, he formed the extreme metal band Strapping Young Lad and, in April '95, put out the wonderfully named Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing debut album. But it was City in '97 that really saw him step forward and say, "Look what I can do."
Intense, deceptively melodic and emotionally draining, City was and is a masterpiece. More SYL albums have followed, while Townsend also released dense, prog-metal albums under the name Ocean Machine. It seemed like, every time he changed his style even slightly, he would put an album out under a new name. Until recently, he had been releasing new music under the name The Devin Townsend Project, and now he's shortened it down to simply Devin Townsend. It's all a little confusing. So what differentiates it all?
"Nothing really," he says. "I think the Devin Townsend Project was an extension of a four-record process I had embarked on, starting around 2009. It ended up sticking as a name because I ended up touring material with a set group of musicians and it just became a way of defining what the thing was when we went out. Honestly, Strapping Young Lad, Devin Townsend, Ocean Machine, Devin Townsend Project—it's all the same process. I think on some level I chose to differentiate them maybe because it seemed appropriate to the time, but the process is all basically the same."
This year saw the release of his latest album, Empath, and it's an incredible piece of work. Typically, it's heavy and dense, but the tunes grab hold of you and shake you like a pit bull with a piece of rope. The album, Townsend says, tackles the subject of middle age.
"With that, there's an awareness as I reached middle age and beyond, of time and maybe mortality on some level," he says. "It thrust me into a frame of mind where I thought, 'You know what, all these things that you've been wanting to do your whole live, you need to go about doing them now.' That includes what happens next with the orchestras and a bunch of other projects that I've got planned. I think it was a convenient theme, the idea of empathy, because it implies emotions and the stylistic differences between songs on this record illustrate that theme, and get away with it."
When we mention to Townsend that the songs on Empath feel more "instant" than those on previous efforts, he seems pleasantly surprised. Others, he says, have found the record difficult to connect with, though he concedes that many of these might be new to his music. This is worth bearing in mind—Townsend's music requires some effort, but it's totally worth it.
"For me, melodically, I haven't thought of this in any different way than I did with any of the prior stuff," he says. "I guess the only difference is I felt like I was free to explore further based on not having the parameters of a rock band, and maybe that contributed to some of those ideas as well."
Songs such as "Genesis," "Spirits Will Collide" and "Requiem" do seem, on the surface, to have religious over-or-undertones. Townsend says no. Spirituality, yes. But religion? No.
"I don't think I'm a religious person," he says. "But spirituality in some sense. I've got no interest in religion whatsoever. It's an interesting line for me to walk. I think meditation played a lot into this, and there's a certain underlying characteristic about being more interested in that. I think it's much more about trying to free myself of my self-imposed parameters in every way, whether that's musically, creatively or anything. When it comes to meditation, it's trying to tame your ego—that's a big part of it. I'll be the first to say that it isn't tame yet."
Townsend says that he's been delighted by the positive reaction to the new album, largely because he wrote it pretty much for himself and was expecting it to fall on deaf ears. His fanbase, though, is smarter than he perhaps gave them credit for. They love free and unrestricted Dev—they want their guy off of his leash.
"I think I had gotten into the mindset that the audience want easy, commercial sounding singalong songs, that have the aesthetic that I do," he says. "To leave that behind and make a record that in a sense is like a retrospective of a lot of the styles that I've done was something I was very nervous about to be honest. The fact that it's done arguably better than any of the records so far has been a real confidence booster in terms of following what it is I think I need to do now, from here on out."
We'll get to see how he interprets the music in the live environment when he gets to Tucson this week, though don't expect it to sound anything like the album—he's going the acoustic route.
"Making Empath was a pain the ass, a pain in the dick, a pain in the balls—that entire area was a pain," he says, graphically. "Because I had done it without a band, and because to promote a record when it comes out is important, I was fatigued to the point that I didn't want to just put together a band haphazardly. So I decided that I would do the Empath touring cycle in four or five parts, and each one would be a different representation of what I do. Different people, different vibe, different songs, etc. And I started by doing this acoustic run, so it's just me and an acoustic guitar with some effects and some sounds."
That is, after all, how the music was written.