... if this is the soundtrack to a midlife crisis, it's a stunningly creative one.
If there’s any musician who excels in multitasking, it’s Devin Townsend. The Canadian musician has dabbled in everything from extreme metal to country to gospel choir-led epics and alien-themed concept albums. But even though Townsend appears to have a superhuman stream of creative energy bubbling through his brain, the news that he would be releasing his most ambitious project yet, just a few months after his last album, sounded overwhelming, even for him. Turns out, ‘overwhelming’ is an understatement… “I’m just gonna be honest,” Townsend says when asked why he decided to release Z2, the double album that’s half Devin Townsend Project and half Ziltoid: half epic, full-blown melodies – the Sky Blue side – and half crazy, techy prog metal presented by his coffee-guzzling alien alter ego – the side known as Dark Matter. “The reality of it was that I wanted to make a Ziltoid album. But we’d spent three years promoting [his hugely successful Devin Townsend Project 2012 album] Epicloud, and the strength of our recent tours and everything have been on the back of that. So when I proposed to the label that I wanted to make Ziltoid, and how much it would cost, to make the puppets and the orchestras and all that stuff, they were like, ‘Well… do you have anything else too? [Laughs] You could also, just saying, put out something at the same time so we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot with people who aren’t interested in a farting alien rock opera.’” While we here at Prog can’t understand how anyone could be uninterested in such a thing, Townsend accepted their request to make another Devin Townsend Project album alongside his Ziltoid dream. But with only six months to do both – “Or maybe even less,” he muses – the pressure to deliver was immense. “Panic is a great motivator,” Townsend laughs wryly. “I did Casualties Of Cool over four years, but with Z2, I was told, ‘We did the crowd‑funding, you have additional incomes, so if you really wanna do the Ziltoid thing… now’s the time.’ I was like, ‘Holy shit, holy shit… okay!’” Under pressure both from the powers that be and also from himself to deliver the music on time and to a high quality, Townsend struggled. “I’m able to stand back from it now and look at it objectively,” he says. “Your life was chaos because you put yourself in a position where everything came down at the same time and it’s your own damn fault! It was chaos. Just immense amounts of activity, and work and frustration and family.” It’s clear that it’s been a difficult year for Townsend. As well as pressure within his work, he had his own personal issues, and felt stress with the changes in getting older. Although originally the two sides of Z2 weren’t conceptually linked, as the process continued, they became a way for him to work through such issues and explore both sides of his personality: the adult and the child. “I found myself in two records, and it was convenient because I’m 42,” he explains. “There are a lot of people in my world that are about this age, and there seem to be similar threads through that age. Parents are dying, and you’re not young enough to get away with looking like you once did but you’re not old enough to sort of phone it in and say, ‘Okay, I’m old now!’ [Laughs] So it’s this weird kind of middle ground. “I found myself forced into confronting certain parts of my nature that I hadn’t anticipated,” he says of the writing process. “The broadest metaphor of the two records is just that it’s yourself against yourself, and you have to deal with your fears of success or failure or criticism or age or whatever these things are that seem to come about at this point in my life, having the two sides of it: the more sombre, conventional side of the Devin Townsend Project and the childish, chaotic, random side of Ziltoid.” It’s certainly true that Ziltoid allows Townsend to escape adult responsibilities into what he describes as “repressed adolescence”, fart jokes and all, but the extraterrestrial represents so much more than that: he also allows Townsend to break free of musical restrictions. “The Ziltoid music is really easy to write,” Devin explains. “But to write a really succinct pop song is difficult, because you’ve got parameters. With Sky Blue, I kept hitting stumbling blocks. It was like a poor version of Epicloud. And I was trying to figure out why… Then I found myself writing about things I didn’t recognise were going on, through letting go of the need to make something super happy. It was a miserable period and Sky Blue ended up being about that – but I’m proud of it.”
“The parameters of what I do professionally with the Devin Townsend Project now include a bunch of people – it’s not just me any more,” Townsend explains. “With Ziltoid, I do it on my own and just follow it wherever it wants to go; I get to be free, my accountability is only for my own creative impulses. So often people are critical of the childish nature of it, but when people say, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to do this,’ it’s the first thing I wanna do! “I remember when I was doing Deconstruction, I thought it would be an interesting or funny part of the concept to just blow in a fart in the middle of the record! In every other aspect of your life, you have to be an adult. So Ziltoid now just represents a way for me to be artistically free in ways that I still find enjoyable.” But what of the story of Ziltoid himself? Turns out that even though Ziltoid’s escapades lean towards the madcap – attacking earth because he disapproved of their coffee-making skills, for example – his character is a lot more thought out, and in a way more simple, than you might expect… “I don’t know how to write stories!” admits Townsend with a laugh. “When I was creating Ziltoid, I thought, ‘I’ll go watch sci-fi movies.’ So I’m watching Star Wars or Star Trek or The Dark Crystal or any of these that I liked when I was a kid… and all the stories were the same! “All these stories, like Joseph Campbell: [Campbell was a scholar who came up with the concept of the monomyth, a theory that sees all mythic narratives as variations of a single great story] the whole idea is one or two stories that humans resonate with. You got an antagonist, something happens, there’s a beginning and an end… to be continued!” he laughs. “So I got to illustrate a story arch, however typical it may be. I enjoy [that music], I really do, but I have a hard time listening to it, unless it’s something I can paint a picture with in my head. “I like making puzzles with harmonies that shouldn’t necessarily fit but if you layer them enough, you kind of force them to fit – I love that!” he continues on the music that accompanies Ziltoid. “There are plot holes in the Ziltoid story so big you could drive a train through it! The concept of it is stupid, it’s a puppet: it doesn’t make any sense! But if that music doesn’t have any concept of some sort, it doesn’t really matter what it is – I mean, it’s already pretentious – but without a story, it’s just wank!” Whether you think Ziltoid is a brilliant idea or just plain ridiculous, there’s no denying that Townsend’s fans bloody love him. They lap up Ziltoid merchandise, from plush toys to T-shirts, and with Z2, Townsend is taking the brand of Ziltoid to new levels beyond just the music itself. “I’ve made so many records that unless there’s some novel element to it, you’re kind of repeating yourself,” he explains. “When I did Epicloud, the motivation for me was the gospel choir. Or on Addicted, it was that I was singing with somebody else. “So for this one, I asked myself, ‘What angle can we take?’ Luckily, I’m surrounded by a really good team of people who are motivated. Like last night, we did filming for Ziltoid and I was just so… not exhausted, but the step right before it. When you’re like, ‘I don’t wanna work! I don’t wanna lift anything, it’s been too much, I’m over it!’ I’m surrounded by people who are like, ‘Okay, we’ll help!’ [Laughs] With me sulking in the corner! “So as a result of all these great people around me, more ideas were added to the multimedia aspect. Like a cool website that’s interactive [you can visit this at www.ziltoid.com]. And we have ZTV – the first two episodes are up on the website.” The most exciting part of the Z2 package has got to be the fact that Townsend will be playing London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall in 2015 to celebrate the release of the album. Even more exciting is the fact that the show sold out in a matter of days. “I went there and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’” laughs Townsend, describing his first visit to the vast, stunning building that’s housed everything from musicals to Cirque du Soleil to the BBC Promenade Concerts. “It’s beautiful. We had our first meeting about it last night. We’ve started to put together ideas and the limitations of the venue itself and what we’re going to be able to do and not able to do. It’ll be the next level! “It’s an incredible honour and it’s so beautiful, but if I think about it in that way, it starts to become intimidating,” he admits. “If you put too much importance on these things then it sucks the fun out of it, right? But certain things you have to take seriously. All of a sudden, here’s this Royal Albert Hall show: [people saying to me] ‘Don’t ever forget this incredible legacy, how easy it is for you to fuck up everything from here on out if you fuck this up! But have fun!’ [Laughs] It’s just like, ‘Ugh, wicked!’ [Laughs sarcastically] If you think of it like that, it’s difficult. But I think now the path is learning how to not take things so seriously when the time comes for it.” Anyone who witnessed his Retinal Circus performance at London’s Roundhouse Theatre in October 2012 to celebrate Epicloud, either live or on the DVD release, will have seen that Townsend knows how to put on one hell of a dishevelled yet spectacular show – and would appear to be damn good at not taking himself too seriously. A madcap mini-musical complete with choir, puppets, contortionists and an abundance of props, it was absurdly entertaining, and its success paved the way for the Royal Albert Hall performance. “One things leads to the next!” announces Townsend. “But each thing is its own beast. At first the Royal Albert Hall was going to be a musical, but then the ideas started coming: it wants to be something different, more sci-fi. Cooler [than the Retinal Circus], and a lot less like a high school musical and more like an event. It’s gonna be awesome!” We have no doubt of that, but what does come as a surprise is that Townsend admits that Z2 and the Royal Albert Hall extravaganza may actually spell the end of Ziltoid. “Recently I did a bunch of hour-long episodes on Ziltoid, just talking like an idiot!” he laughs. “Until I got to a point where I was like, ‘I’m outta gas on this.’ I think that’s probably gonna happen with all of it – the lifespan of it is limited. “But at the same time,” he grins cheekily, “one of the clichés that I stole from all the sci‑fi movies was: ‘To be continued…’” Z2 is out now on InsideOut. For more information, visit www.ziltoid.com and www.hevydevy.com.