“I’ve come to the conclusion that madness is sometimes a decision”: how Devin Townsend quit weed, unscrambled his brain and made the classic Ki album

Devin Townsend in a hood holding a guitar
(Image credit: Press)

Devin Townsend is one of metal’s great mavericks. But by the late 2000s, he was tiring of his ‘Mad Scientist’ persona. As he told Metal Hammer in this classic 2009 interview, the solution was to quit marijuana, unscramble his head and make Ki, the first of a quartet of albums by The Devin Townsend Project.

Retirement’s been good to Devin Townsend. Shorn of his trademark skullet and the alien puppet companion he was parading for his Ziltoid The Magnificent album shortly before he announced he was taking an indefinite hiatus in 2007, The Mad Scientist finally looks happy in his own skin. Now clean of his former drug habits, he’s back in action with not just a new album, Ki, under the Devin Townsend Project banner, but a four-album suite in the works. Ask him about the lead-up to his short-lived retirement announcement and it’s clear that the passion that’s driven him for over a decade is still a torrent, bubbling up to the surface at the merest prompt.

“Alien is the album I’m most proud of with Strapping Young Lad,” he says over a mug of supposedly calming Camomile tea, “but it was the hardest for me to do. When that record was over, dude, I was levelled. And I had so many people in my world that were like, [putting on a voice like an anthropomorphised dog] ‘Yeah yeah yeah, do it again’, but I was like, ‘Dude, this is really hard for me, this is emotionally fucking punishing, and in all honesty, this is going to fucking kill me if I do it again’. But they’re going, ‘Yeah yeah yeah’, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘So you want me to die? No fucking way. And you’re not my friend if that’s what you’re after.’”

Seemingly at the end of his tether after the release of Strapping Young’s lad’s 2006 album The New Black, and needing to take a break for personal reassessment, the  frontman had found himself driven into a corner. He was still in the shadow of 1997’s landmark album, City, a record whose raging, futuristic force of reckoning was the product of a man nearly 10 years his junior, still trying to meet expectations he was feeling increasingly distanced from, and coping with the absurdity of his situation by pulling more mad faces and more stunts. One such stunt involved holding a press conference directing all questions to his puppet as he hid in his booth. It was all continuing to feed the notion of Devin Townsend as some dancing bear going mental for our amusement.

Devin Townsend in a grey suit staring into the camera

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Total Guitar)

“People say, ‘You left Strapping because you’re against it’,” Devin relates. “Man, I am so proud of what we did, but my music is me getting from one stage of my life to the next. I’m never not going to be angry, but I realised you can be angry all you want, and it’s not going to change anything, so what you’re doing is wasting your time and energy just screaming about it. So I owe it to myself and to whoever’s paying attention to define myself at this point, and it’s just been such a multi-headed hydra up to now, and everybody needs a niche to put you in, and in terms of media, it’s been ‘the crazy guy’. I need to get beyond that. Download [2006] was fun, I had a great time, but also I just watched it and that’s just a 40-year- old guy up there and there’s more to what I can offer than just telling people to fuck off. Granted, that’s a lot of fun, but the problem with becoming a commercial entity like Strapping, all of a sudden when people get a taste of money coming in, then you’re forbidden in a lot of ways to represent yourself in any other way. I love music, I feel very fortunate in my life right now to be able to participate musically and offer what I think I can offer to people. I’ve been away for a while and I’ve just come to a lot of personal conclusions.”

If Strapping Young Lad was, for Devin, a process of self-discovery – a restless questioning of the nature of the universe and his place in it, wrapped up in a crowd-pleasing barrage of massive, destiny-driven riffs and layered, wind-tunnel howls – the next stage of his career has been marked by a process of mental spring cleaning. The new album, Ki, and the three to follow, will each have their own unique character, but they build up to a whole – a mental map of where its maker is at now.

Ki is just like an intro to this whole thing. In all honesty, it’s an exercise in holding back. My whole thought was to throw caution to the wind and say, ‘Hey everybody, this is actually who I am,’ and that might not actually be cool and it might not actually be sellable, and you know what? If it isn’t, that’s totally fine because I just gotta let you know that if I pretend I’m this other guy much longer than I have been, it’s just going to end up being a parody.”

"Coast" - The Devin Townsend Project - YouTube
Watch On

Relatively low-key Ki may be, but it’s one of his most immersive albums yet, its lush, roving, progressive journeys unfolding and morphing at a stately pace, nudging itself on with a gumshoe-soundtrack shuffling pulse, as though it’s meticulously searching for clues amongst the heavens. But whereas Strapping Young Lad was the sound of a man with an endless capacity for self-questioning being gradually swallowed up by the vast, universal scale on which he painted his philosophical musings, this is a warmer, more human, more manageable attempt to find his place in the ultimately unknowable scheme of things.

“I was smoking marijuana for 15 years,” he says, “and all of a sudden, I ended up reacting to this reality that I was creating for myself, and I couldn’t control it. That’s been the whole problem. I lost perspective. My identity is something that I have such a hard time justifying and living up to that I would do anything at that point to perpetuate that. So I’d end up doing tons of drugs, and then afterwards, all I’d do is to bring problems into my world, because I wasn’t being honest. I’m above average intelligence, and I’m 37 and there’s tons of people in my world that are way smarter than me, and some that are way less intelligent, and all have a perspective on things that I’ll never have. I had a baby in 2006 and I thought, your whole quest for figuring out the universe – you’re not going to, so you may just want to focus on the things that are bringing you peace, because I’ve been such a mess thinking so much about things that I can’t change or control.”

So is it finally time to put the Mad Scientist tag to bed?

“I’ve come to the conclusion,” Devin surmises, “that madness is sometimes a decision. To some of us the idea of going mad is a really gratifying thing, because who’s going to argue with you? I have people come to me with conspiracy theories, like alien abductions. So sure, what if that is actually happening? What are you going to do about it, and does it make it easier for you to pee in public, knowing that? For me, the smarter I’ve gotten, the harder it is for me to pee in public. I’m never going to be as smart as someone who’s just a little bit smarter than me, and nowhere near as smart as the smartest among us. So my quest to be a genius or brilliant is ultimately going to end up with me going crazy, and fucking up the things in my life that I could enjoy if I just chilled and discovered what I actually enjoy.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 193

Jonathan Selzer

Having freelanced regularly for the Melody Maker and Kerrang!, and edited the extreme metal monthly, Terrorizer, for seven years, Jonathan is now the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Bemoans his obsolete superpower of being invisible to Routemaster bus conductors, finds men without sideburns slightly circumspect, and thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.