‘I took mushrooms and thought I was God’: inside the brain of Devin Townsend

Devin Townsend
Child of the universe: Devin Townsend

Universal enlightenment seems like an implausible goal right now. We live in scary times, where even the most pragmatic of artists must be struggling to find positive things to write about, and yet the new Devin Townsend Project album appears – superficially, at least – to offer the great man’s fans some sort of path to a higher state of consciousness and a better way of life. It’s called Transcendence, implying that Devin is on the way to exceeding his expectations as a human being and gliding majestically past life’s struggles on the way to a more meaningful existence (even if the title of the lead-off track is Failure).

Of course, this is Devin we’re talking about, and fans of his work will already be itching to scratch the surface of the new album to find out what he’s really banging on about this time. The record’s dazzling artwork certainly hints at some kind of holistic reconciliation with notions of spirituality, and the gorgeous, uplifting music contained within may send many of us into a state of frothing rapture. But as we speak to Devin, it is obvious that he has anticipated – and, perhaps, deliberately elicited – such well-meant misinterpretations.

“Ultimately, I have to point out that I have transcended nothing!” he laughs. “I know less now than I did 10 minutes ago. The true nature of life is fucking astounding, and none of us know shit. I get so frustrated when people claim to know anything! My favourite quote I ever heard was, ‘If you really think you’re enlightened, go and spend a week with your family!’ Ha ha ha!”

Devin Townsend and his Project: on the road to Transcendence

Devin Townsend and his Project: on the road to Transcendence

The truth behind Transcendence is that, as has routinely been the case, Devin started work on the seventh DTP album with no real clue about where his creativity was going to take him. Having already produced a conceptual, satirical quadrilogy about a cheeseburger and the almost hysterically euphoric Epicloud, Devin’s band have dealt with some big ideas and bold musical journeys before. But unlike its predecessors, the new album’s central theme emerged during the process of making the music itself.

“Everything I was writing was like a shitty version of what I’ve already done,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Fuck, what do I do?’ But each record ends up being like an archaeological dig where you see something sticking out of the dirt. Sometimes it’s a pterodactyl, sometimes it’s a chicken! The bones sticking out of the ground for this one were that I needed to step out of my comfort zone.”

Pretty much everything Devin releases is received with wide-eyed joy by a loyal fanbase, and yet it’s obvious that one of the main things he has battled with over the years is the conflict between what is expected and what he actually wants to do. This time round, to avoid a descent into self-parody, he strove to change the very essence of his day-to-day existence.

“The first thing I did was start exercising every day,” he grimaces. “I did a bunch of things I’ve never tried before, like sparring and lifting weights. I still look like a bag of yams, but a little bit of discomfort every day helped me to recognise where the other uncomfortable things in my life were lying, particularly the fact that I need control of everything. I realised that I had people around me, this amazing team, that were better than I was at certain things, but I’d never really utilised them before.”

Tearing himself away from his usual means of expression and his long-established work processes presented Devin with a huge challenge. As Transcendence began to take shape, his initial efforts to think outside of his own box sparked a burst of panic that sent him tumbling back towards a cosy cocoon of familiarity.

“The crux of this whole thing came at the last minute,” he recalls. “We’d made the record, but it didn’t sound like one of my things! I said, ‘We need to add more echo! More symphony!’ The mixing engineer, the mastering engineer and the label privately sent me emails going, ‘What are you doing to this record? It’s starting to sound like another one of your wall-of-sound things…’ I said, ‘No, it sounds right! Now I dig it!’ But now they were all bummed out that I was changing it. So I said, ‘I want you guys to make it sound how you think it should sound.’ When they sent it to the label, I thought I was going to vomit. But it’s good to have some variation, right? And now I really dig this record.”

The end result of this fractious creative drive is unlikely to freak out Devin’s admirers. It is, to a great degree, another sumptuous and absorbing eruption of reverb-drenched grandeur, full of spiralling arpeggios, scything riffs, sweet melodies and bombastic choruses. But dig a little deeper and Transcendence becomes a much more vulnerable affair, exhibiting evidence of emotional and existential turmoil: a quest for transcendence that concludes, as Devin has indicated, that none of us know shit.

In fact, Devin’s search for a less fraught and frantic state of mind has been a central part of his creative life for the last 25 years or more. As much as he has played up to the image of metal’s mad scientist in residence (even, as he points out, once doing a photoshoot dressed as a mad scientist), he has tussled with mental health issues since his late teens.

“There’s a predisposition toward mental health issues in my family,” he shrugs. “I had a fairly sheltered childhood, and then I moved to LA to do the Steve Vai thing [a 21-year-old Devin sang on Vai’s Sex & Religion album in 1993], and moved to the UK to do The Wildhearts thing [he briefly joined the British band in 1994], and so there were a lot of experiences in a short space of time. When I moved back to Vancouver, I decided that, ‘Now is the time to start doing acid!’ I remember the first time I got really high on mushrooms, and I thought, ‘Well, clearly I’m God!’ Now I know that everyone feels like that, but at the time I felt like I was the first person to ever experience that, so I had to write a series of albums about it and do interviews about it. Note to self, it really labels you in hindsight as being a little bit of a fuck-up, you know what I mean?”

When we first fell in love with Devin, he was primarily celebrated as the frontman of brutish future-metal crew Strapping Young Lad. When the band split in 2006, fans were distraught, but it soon became apparent that Devin was not just tired of making vicious, angry music, but that he had also been reaping a psychological whirlwind that had seemingly been exacerbated by many years of recreational drug use.

“I was on anti-psychotic medication for 10 years. Then my wife and I had children, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t know if I’m actually mentally ill in the ways that I’ve been told, or if I was just on a ton of drugs!’” he chuckles, drily. “So I went to a psychiatrist and said, ‘I’d like to try coming off these psychiatric medications, come off alcohol and drugs, and change my eating and exercising habits…’ A lot of those mental health boxes that were ticked were a result of a lot of these experiences I’ve had, compounded by a massive ego, massive insecurity and a lot of psychedelic drugs. I got off everything. When I quit weed, it was like, ‘Holy fuck! Where have I been for a decade?!’ And thus started my fun-free lifestyle, ha ha ha!”

Drink and drug-free for nearly a decade, Devin may still be inscribing his inner monologue across the majority of his musical endeavours, but the confusion and anxiety that informed many of his earlier records has been replaced with a more pragmatic, clear-sighted approach to dealing with life’s bullshit. That said, he has yet to turn into some ghastly anti-drugs missionary armed with pious cautionary tales.

“Fuck, no! I miss drinking, I miss having a toke and sitting in the backyard and wondering if trees dream and all that shit, but at the same time I’ve got a really good life. What I do musically is cool and healthy, but to have that guy be my identity is super unhealthy, man.”

If Transcendence represents anything specific, it’s that Devin is learning to chill the fuck out a bit more and not torture himself about every last detail or every last musical project that pops from his febrile mind. The beatific hybrid of religious imagery that adorns the album’s cover amounts to a simple statement about the way spiritual ideas are bought and sold just like any consumable product. It’s a typically spiky and subversive idea, but what sets Transcendence apart from some of its satirical forebears is an underlying sense that the energy we use to seek answers to the big questions would be better used trying to make our brief time on this planet a little less unpleasant.

“The amount of bullshit going on in the world right now, why wouldn’t you try to make something that has a good intention?” Devin asks. “It would be very easy to make a record about sulking… and that’s pretty popular already, right? It’s like, ‘We’re from a Western civilisation and we’re in a middle-class tax bracket… but everything’s shit!’ OK, man… ha ha ha!”

Is Devin Townsend happier today than he was a decade ago? Almost certainly. But while Transcendence is undoubtedly uplifting, it doesn’t provide answers to the big questions. As he turns his attention to the next grand Townsendian project – a classical symphony, no less – metal’s reluctant mad scientist just wants to remind us all that we too need to chill the fuck out, look after ourselves and each other and, most importantly, stop kidding ourselves that we know a damn thing.

“This album forced me to get over my need for fascist control over what I do,” he concludes. “I don’t want to be isolated. I like friends, I like relationships. When I go to make the symphony next, it’s a lesson learned. It’s a step along the way. You can’t access the castle until you make a deal with the troll under the drawbridge, right?”

Transcendence is out on September 9 via InsideOut. Devin tours the UK in March

TRANSCEND THIS!

Devin’s four-step guide to achieving inner peace

DRINK COFFEE

“If you can enjoy coffee with every sense of your being, then there’s a good chance that at least there’s hope for you. That’s definitely a good feeling of quasi-transcendence, and I’ve achieved that one today. I’ve enjoyed three cups of coffee, but unfortunately the feeling of quasi-transcendence went away after the third one, because my technique for consuming caffeine is to keep drinking it until you feel like you want to vomit… and then it’s time for lunch. But during the second cup of coffee, I was definitely golden for a few moments!”

DON’T CRY

“Don’t sob after a wank! That’s a good start. I’m still working on that one, to be honest. Also, not feeling complete contempt for yourself after destroying a pizza at about 11.30 at night while watching shitty TV for hours on end… if you don’t do that, there’s a chance you’ll be able to transcend. But I haven’t achieved that one, either. In a sense, I’m setting goals for myself here!”

DON’T HATE

“I have to point out again that I have transcended nothing, but in order to transcend, one should really try to not look at every human being around them as if they’re a scourge on one’s own sense of comfort. If you do that, we will bring ourselves down to that base level that we’re all trying so hard to avoid. Unfortunately, I fail at this one, too.”

LISTEN TO GROTUS

“Listen to [early 90s San Francisco band] Grotus, specifically the album Brown. They fucking killed me, dude. I remember in 1990, I went to see Mr. Bungle, and Grotus were opening for them. I didn’t even pay attention to Mr. Bungle afterwards, because they fuckin’ blew my mind, dude. It was life-changing. They’re just one of those bands. It was a crazy experience, and people need to check them out!”