Interview: Devin Townsend talks about “Ki,” his four-album concept project and returning to music

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Devin Townsend – founder and frontman for Strapping Young Lad and a prolific solo artist – had completely burned out on the music business by the time SYL did the 2006 Ozzfest tour.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that my wife was pregnant during Ozzfest,” Towsend said during a recent interview. The pressure of being forced to leave home and take on the grueling Ozzfest second stage schedule (20-minute sets at rotating times) drove Townsend to self-medicate his pain.

“I was smoking so much weed and drinking so much booze to try to find some kind of solace that it was pushing me away from any peace,” he said. ” … I realized … I had no idea why I was doing what I was doing.

“That ultimately made me second-guess everything I did to where, in a lot of ways, I couldn’t function at a professional musician level.”

After the release of “Ziltoid The Omniscient” in 2007, Townsend announced his retirement from touring and interviews. Townsend continued to work as a producer with bands such as Bleeding Through, Zimmer’s Hole (featuring former SYL bandmates Gene Hoglan, Jed Simon and Byron Stroud) and Misery Signals. 

But now, Townsend is sober, clear-headed and preparing for his return to the road. On June 16, Townsend will release “Ki, “the first installment of a four-disc concept work that will be released as the Devin Townsend Project. All of the albums will be recorded and released this year — but  unlike, SLY or The Devin Townsend Band, each album will be recorded with different musicians.

Townsend said, after some time away from touring, he discovered he had something to say musically after all.

“I felt, ‘not only do I know (what I want to say), but I’ve got a ton of music that’s really focused,'” Townsend said.

Strapping Young Lad’s music is chaotic and fierce, with heavily distorted guitars. When writing “Ki,” Townsend said he decided to not rely on technology for heaviness.

“The most obvious (difference) is there is no distortion on the guitar,” he said. “Writing heavy riffs on a clean guitar was a new experience for me and I really enjoyed it.”

Through the writing process, Townsend said he was able to leave behind some of the insecurities he’d developed during the Ozzfest tour.

“Even during ‘Ki,” I kept second-guessing myself: ‘People don’t want to hear this from me. They want to hear chaos,'” Townsend said. “But I want to hear this, and that has to count for something at this point in my career. ”

“Ki” draws on a wide range of musical styles, including extreme metal, guitar virtuosity, elements of ambient, acoustic and funk – and even classic, Elvis-style rock ‘n’ roll. Townsend said he did not want to be confined to just playing stereotypical “metal” with “Ki.”

“I find myself incredulous that, a lot of times,, the heavy metal scene seems unwilling to admit they really liked Creedence Clearwater Revival or ZZ Top,” Townsend said. “… When I was writing ‘Ki,” I wrote without editing what was coming out. ”

“It seems strange to me that an art form I got into because it has such freedom has become so conservative,” Townsend said of the metal scene. “… I just want to write music, and if it fits in, or if it doesn’t fit in, I’m cool with that.” 

The albums following “Ki” will also be eclectic, but will be extremely heavy in places, Townsend said.

“There are four albums this year and a lot of different styles,” he said. “People into heavy music … will have something to appreciate.”

For “Ki,” Townsend worked with almost a totally new group of musicians. With the exception of keyboardist Dave Young (a  member of Devin Townsend Band), the band for “Ki” includes musicians who had not played in metal bands before joining the project.

“They’re approach to the parts was definitely unique,” Townsend said of drummer Duris Maxwell and bassist Jean Savoie, who are not traditional metal musicians. “It was how they interpret the feel (of the songs) and how they swing it.”

When asked if the “Ki” and the other albums in the Devin Townsend Project are autobiographical, Townsend said: “Every record is autobiographical in a vague sense, and this one definitely as well. It’s a lot more literal as well.”

While lyrically, past albums were more abstract, “now I’m like, ‘this song is about this,'” Townsend said. “(I) try to keep it vague enough that it can be interpreted in other people’s worlds.

“When you’re writing lyrics, you have to be aware (that) no one really wants to know what’s going on in your life,” he said. “The idea is to draw on something in your life and make it universal.”

As part of his retirement in 2007, Townsend announced that he would not be doing any more interviews for the foreseeable future. Townsend said he does not feel the pressure now that he felt when doing interviews for SYL three years ago.

“I really think my time in the direct spotlight may have passed,” Townsend said. “… If you’re going to do music, you have to promote it – but me being the Next Big Thing, that’s not what I thought even three years ago.”

Townsend said he is comfortable with “Ki” and with the DTP albums to follow.

“There are going to be people who like it and people who don’t like it – and in the age of downloading, if you want to download it, then download it,” he said.”  … I want to continue making music – and the type is fairly specific – so if you’re interested in it, here’s a bunch more of it.”

The albums will be heavy – but not necessarily in the way that Strapping Young Lad was heavy, Townsend said.

“I think it’s a different type of heavy,” he said. ” … When I say ‘heavy,’ I mean complicated sonically. Some of it is going to by SYL and some of it is going to be orchestral. I’m not out to top anything so much as make a new version of some of the elements I’ve presented” in the past.

You can hear samples from “Ki” and other Devin Townsend albums here.

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