Devin Townsend: my life in 10 songs

Devin Townsend squatting in a hat and colourful shirt
(Image credit: Tanya Ghosh)

Devin Townsend isn't so much a musical genius as metal's mad scientist. Combining elements that shouldn't work (including blast-beats, choirs, fart noises and mewling kittens), Devin has defined progressive, innovative zaniness with albums containing everything from industrial and punk to ambient chill-out and extreme metal. 

With a three-decade plus career pushing boundaries with Strapping Young Lad and countless solo outlets, as well as stints with artists including Steve Vai and The Wildhearts, picking out a definitive guide to Hevy Devy's discography is a fool's errand. So we got the man himself to pick out the 10 songs that best represent his life in music.

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1. Devin Townsend - Fake Punk (Punky Brüster – Cooked on Phonics, 1996)

“I wrote Fake Punk while I was in The Wildhearts. I wrote it with Kev (Papworth), who played in Lawnmower Deth and was our guitar tech at the time. I loved punk music and grew up with a lot of it, but I was never a punk. I could do sweep appregios and did well in school, you know? As much as I loved the scene, I was never legit so I could pull from personal experience and say ‘I’m a fake punk, but so are you guys’.

There was this whole notion that to get anywhere you had to be bug-eyed, jump-around, 3/4 punk. The guys that were doing all of that were the same guys who’d been dressing as Nirvana three years before and dressing like Motley Crue before that. It was all just aesthetics.”

2. Strapping Young Lad - In The Rainy Season (Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing, 1995)

In The Rainy Season is another one I wrote while I was out with The Wildhearts. I had my big ESP Explorer at the time and the world’s most tragic hair do, which is a good combination for angst-ridden music! The rain has always been a huge motivator to me. When I lived in LA I couldn’t write anything, it all just sounded like Smash Mouth, so when I got back to miserable Vancouver it was like, ‘Ah, that’s what I need’. 

Writing the first Strapping [Young Lad] record, I really liked the idea of this relentless momentum, a song going like a bullet train. Anthrax really influenced the beat, I think one of the songs from Among The Living. I also thought it’d be cool to mix the choral operatic thing that you’d get on old Enya or Clannad records with the stuff you’d get from Napalm Death or Pitchshifter. It felt like I was levelling up as a songwriter. ”

3. Strapping Young Lad - Oh My Fucking God (City, 1997)

Oh My Fucking God was another moment where it felt like I’d levelled up. While I was out in LA I’d met Gene [Hoglan]. He told me he loved our first record while we were drunk and I was like, ‘Hey, you should play on the new one’. He said yes, but didn’t remember the next day! We got together in Orange County and started rehearsing material and I’d got all these riffs that ended up becoming Oh My Fucking God

That song that made me realise the less I think about what I’m doing, the more I can realise who I actually am. It’s also usually the point people go, ‘Hey, I love what you’re doing on this’.”

4. Devin Townsend – The Death Of Music (Ocean Machine, 1997)

The Death Of Music was a fundamental corner of my early musical world. I lost a friend to murder when we were kids and it was the first time I really had to deal with a death. When I moved to LA, I had all these pie in the sky ideals of what it would mean to be a musician. Growing up in the '80s, you’d see all these things about Ratt, Motley Crue… sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but when I got there and saw the music industry, it was like, ‘Oh god, it’s full of shit!’

Some of the guys I’d revered as gods turned out to be total assholes. The illusions I had in my head were shattered and I thought the culmination of the death of this music dream and the death of my friend required me as a musician to focus on things that are more immutable, so it became the centrepiece of Ocean Machine.”

5. Devin Townsend – Truth (Infinity, 1998)

Truth was inspired by a mushroom trip. I’ll preface it by saying I don’t do drugs now, and live a pretty clean lifestyle. Up until a certain point I had never really tried that stuff, then all of a sudden I started experimenting – smoking weed, trying hallucinogens like mushrooms and acid. 

When you’ve participated in that kind of reality, it changes the course of your life. It was like, ‘Holy fuck, okay’, because you can’t really un-ring that bell. I was able to wake up in a sense and everything since has been honouring the grandeur, horror and beauty of that. Meditation is a really big thing for me, because it's trying to write from the perspective of knowing how evolutionarily primitive I am, which is also why I re-visited it on Transcendence."

6. Devin Townsend – Kingdom (Physicist, 2000)

Kingdom was written after I’d fucked up. The whole song was basically an apology, ‘Stay with me, I’m fine, I’ve learned my lesson’. I got so wound up in my own bullshit sense of self-importance that I made all sorts of mistakes. So whenever I talk about these psychedelic experiences from 25 years ago, I always caution people not to romanticise it. Unless you’ve got people around you who’re willing to put up with your bullshit, you could lose everything.

When I first recorded it on Physicist I was depressed that it didn’t sound how I wanted it to. I’d gained 50 or 60 pounds and spent about a year watching Duckman cartoons on the couch, so it didn’t have the strength I thought it should. When I re-recorded it for Epicloud, that became the more definitive version that to this day I strive for when we play. It’s a process of un-fucking myself and the music is a document to that.” 

7. Devin Townsend Band - Deadhead (Accelerated Evolution, 2003)

When I was young, I thought love was passion, or sex, or romance. But after a while, biologically, that infatuation fades and I thought when the passion was gone that meant the love was gone. It wasn’t until I experienced loss that I realised love is much more brutal. To love somebody, especially your kids, you have to accept that everything dies.

Love includes the awareness that death is inevitable and when I was younger I was terrified of that. I was in pursuit of passion all the time, so Deadhead is a song about selfishness, about hurting people so you can just pursue that passion. What’s really incredible about love is that you have to be there, be around incredible amounts of suffering in order for you to really recognise what it is. It's not the hallmark card stuff!”

8. Devin Townsend Project – Ki (Ki, 2009)

"Ki was important to me because that’s when I had kids. When my son was born, I remember looking at him like, ‘This is crazy, you came out of my balls!’ then all of a sudden, I realised that I didn’t truly know where this entity came from. There was a profundity that seemed so heavy, but underneath it was a fundamental truth and Ki was me basically saying ‘Don’t be afraid’. If you can accept something as beautiful rather than horrible, you can participate in a true way with the world.

I used to listen to this Japanese new wave artist called Kitaro, who had an album called Ki. When I looked up what that meant, the Japanese meaning at least was ‘life force’ and any element that propels life and I loved that.”

9. Devin Townsend Project – Deconstruction (Deconstruction, 2011)

Deconstruction is about making peace with that part of me is human, based on a dream I had. That and Poltergeist have this same theme of exorcising yourself, you can’t feel hatred and anger for the parts of you that are wounded because that will cause nothing but conflict.

The metaphor I used is that this character dies, goes to hell and meets himself and he’s the devil. He’s so arrogant he feels like he can just dissect the divine and figure it all out. At the conclusion, he asks this choir to show him the true nature of reality and they show him this cheeseburger. It represents how stupid a quest, and how arrogant an assumption, it was. But there’s a release in that, realising that because you can’t understand it, you don’t really have to dedicate energy to all of that.”

10. Devin Townsend Project – Genesis (Empath, 2019)

Genesis was where everything came together. Blizzards, teddy bears, devils, snakes, thunderstorms, elephants, love and boners – the whole thing doesn’t matter because when it’s done, you move on. 

The video is me just sitting and listening to tunes, then at the end I get up and walk away. It’s a puzzle, but I hope people will understand what it was meant to be – me moving on to other, different things. That’s where I’m looking to go with Lightwork and The Moth, which is the one after that.”

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Devin Townsend plays the Royal Albert Hall on April 16/17. His new album Lightwork is expected later this year.

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.