"I never wanted to sing !" Devin Townsend [English version]

Even if it was rather frustrating to discuss Devin Townsend's prolific career in ten little minutes, we still got a handful of precious lessons regarding creativity, but also humility. Here's what Devin had to say about Empath and his new way of approaching concerts, among other topics. You will also find on the following link all the recent music Devin has put out following a GoFundMe campaign opened to compensate his band's financial loss in the aftermath of Covid-19. 

Photos by Florian Denis

So it must be quite something to play with Morgan Ågren (Fredrik Thordendal's Special Defects, Magma, Mats/Morgan). He's basically one of the best drummers in the world, and not just for Metal, as he's a tremendous Jazz player as well. Did you count on those skills when you recorded Empath and also for the live show?

Devin Townsend : He's indeed one of the best drummers in the world. The thing that I count on with Morgan that I looked for in a drummer, and the thing that Morgan has more than anybody is backbeat. He has a swing that very few drummers have and the music that I write just asks for it. Trying to find a drummer with that has been very difficult. 

He also played on Zëss, the latest Magma record, are you into them ? 

I like them. I mean, I love what they do. I didn't listen to them when I should have. So Mike Keneally and Morgan showing me Magma lately, I'm having to go back in time and listen to them. But yes, it's fascinating music. 

Some artists tend to dismiss what they've done in the past. I'm not an artist but I definitely tend to dismiss my old articles. How do you feel about your old back catalogue like the Steve Vai collaboration or Strapping Young Lad ?

It's super important to me, really. It's been the same process every step of the way. What I'm doing now with this show is very similar to what I do with the acoustic show, in my mind. And it's the same with what I did with Strapping. Each period of life manifests differently, right ? So, some people I know are embarassed of their old works or they deny it existed but I think it's important for me to embrace it. 

Do you see some kind of coherent flow through your body of work ? 

Oh yeah, I just keep fucking up ! [chuckles] Then, I hopefully learn and the next thing uncovers. 

I guess one of the aspects that surprised people the most with this Empath tour was the fact that you wanted improvisation to be part of the show. Do you often use improvisation when you write ? 

Yeah, very much ! I think it's all improvisation but there's just different ways of doing it too, I guess. There are different techniques to do so. Even when I'm using a computer program, I think my templates for writing music have got an aspect of them that allows me to improvise within that. But in line with the whole idea that "each record is mistakes that hopefully you grow from", I think that improvisation is maybe very similar to that, where you have to forgive yourself for making mistakes, or else you never try, right ? You never take a risk because you're affraid that you'll make a mistake. So maybe the fact that I've done so many different things and it keeps changing is improvisation in itself. 

For this tour, you decided you would stop using samples and backing tracks. It's funny because the other day, I saw a tech crew guy wearing a "fuck your backtracks!" What was the whole process that lead you to make that decision ? 

[laughs] The FOH technician that we have, Stanley, who is a genius I think, had worked with me and my previous band. He was just like : "I know that when you make records you have all these tracks. But live, it's a mess ! You can't have all the echoes, all this stuff and expect it to be clear." Maybe in light of... just growing as a person, as musician, I guess, it just to the point where I felt like I'm doing karaoke, in a way. [laughs] You press play on the computer, you've got a backup computer and it's got vocals, all the choirs, loops, guitars, keyboards... so basically all the band is doing is supporting a computer. When I was younger, I really liked the idea of making the live thing sound like the record, and I've been very critical of myself for my voice or my guitar playing. But there were a couple shows over the last few years where everything screwed up. 

Actually, I think it happened when you played Bataclan in Paris in 2017. The computer crashed, so you had to do this stand-up show for 5 minutes until the computer rebooted.

It's like, I can do that silly stand-up show, I'm okay with that.‎ It's funny you remember that ! ‎People remember the screw-ups that have happened over the past five or six years more than a lot of the shows!  If you get the shows perfect, people remember it less than the times when : "oh, the computers went down ! ". So maybe this time, the fact of just having musicians play will help me learn. That's what I'm doing every step.

Did you ever have, even for a minute, second thoughts about the Judas Priest gig ? 

No. No, I never wanted to sing ! [laughs] When I was a kid, I just wanted to play guitar. But I couldn't find a singer that didn't... cause problems. So I was like : "Ok, fuck it, I'll just learn to sing ! " And then I got the gig with Steve Vai, then after a while I thought : "Yeah well I guess I'm a singer now ! ". But‎ I've never thought of myself as a singer, I mean more recently, I guess I do... So when Judas Priest came along, I was a very young child and at the time, I loved that band and I thought the last thing I wanted to do would be to ruin that band ! [laughs] 'Cause that's what would have happened, like me and Judas Priest ??? No way, it would be terrible ! Everybody knows it. 

You just said that you learn from the mistakes you make on each record. Do you already see some stuff that you could improve on the next one compared to Empath ? 

Yeah, of course ! I think I'm a perfectionist but I know that I'm imperfect. So there's always things to do ! [laughs] Being an imperfect perfectionist is... irritating ! So I have tons of ideas but it's almost like at this stage of my life and career, I just wanted to work with teachers. You know, like Morgan Ågren, Mike Keneally, Markus Reuter or Ché Aimee Dorval. They're all great teachers for me and so, it's almost like I'm in music school and I get the chance to be in a band with my professors. [laughs]

Neredude (Avril 2020)

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