Devin Townsend Talks Casualties of Cool, Upcoming Projects + More
Devin Townsend was the guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio show. The ever evolving musician opened up about his Casualties of Cool project with Che Aimee Dorval, venturing out into a dark Americana type style and he also discussed what else is on his "to do" list. Check out the chat in full below.
How are you my friend?
It’s great talking to you Jackie. Thank you for having me.
Let's talk about Casualties of Cool. Let's talk about how that came about because I think it's something that's been in the works for a long time.
Yeah, well I think the best place for me to start with a project like this in trying to explain it is although I'm not trying to be provocative by making all these records, I am not trying to challenge my audience in any way. In fact, when something like this seems to come into my radar as a project that I want to pursue my first thought is usually, “Oh God, now I'm going to have to explain this to people, why I'm doing that.” And Casualties, if you haven’t heard it, it's sort of like a sort of ambient, really dark, Americana, David Lynch-y sort of thing that I did with a singer named Che. And it started while I was working on the record Deconstruction about four years ago and because of my sort of obsessive nature while I'm working on things I tend to get so wound up in it that the only way for me to kind of get any relief from it all is to finish it.
So the latter side of the Deconstruction process and there were so many layers and pieces of the puzzle to put together I would come home at night from the studio and I had bought myself an old telecaster and around midnight I guess I would come home and I was just strumming away at the guitar. Standard E, A, B chords and all that for no reason other than that it was relaxing for me because it was so simple. But as is the case with the way that these things go with me, it’s just one thing lead to another. There was a chord that sort of struck an aesthetic in my mind that I wanted to pursue. And then I contacted Che who I worked with before and four years later we have Casualties of Cool, so hooray!
It's haunting and desolate. What makes that ambiance so comfortable for you?
Well I think it's for a while there when I had finished with Strapping Young Lad and all that there was an aspect of what I did that I wanted to stay far away from anything that was overtly dark. Because towards the end of Strapping, you know, I was smoking a bunch of weed, drinking a bunch of booze, and just a lot of the things I felt compelled to write about were things that I was no longer comfortable with once I got sober. But then when I got thinking about it after Addicted and some of these really positive statements that I made after Epicloud etc.
I started to recognize that that darkness thing is a big part of my personality. And as opposed to it coming out in ways that were very unhealthy it seemed to be something I was very comfortable with if I could channel it in a way that was appropriate to where I am now, as a 43-year-old. And Casualties became a way for me to express those sort of dark things almost in an observational kind of way. And it's interesting to me to see that it became quiet at this age as opposed to when I was 25 and it was Strapping Young Lad, right. But it’s a similar kind of vibe I think.
In a way, it takes listeners back to your earlier years of being exposed to music. What did you like about rural music when you were a kid?
There is something hidden about it. I like to think through all the complicated stuff that I've written, the complicated sort of paths that I've chosen production wise or personally that at my core I'm a really simple kind of cat. And I think that a juxtaposition between somebody who looks for things to be simple or more eloquent in a way also being left brained. Right brained, and there is chaos going on at the same time. And when I was a kid I remember thinking about depression era music you know, that sort of oh brother, where art thou sort of aesthetic Johnny Cash or even the more pokey stuff with Pete Seeger and I'm thinking that there’s a darkness to that era.
There is a darkness to that time where my grandfather lived where some of the things they had to deal with in order to keep the family going and all that sort of stuff was literally a difficult time period. The music that was reflected in that, was a simple bluesy / folky element held a hidden mystery to it that even as a kid I remember thinking, well there's a darkness there. It seemed to be a real cool platform to expand on when it came to these production things and reverbing things that I've come to really enjoy.
How did Che's voice inform and inspire you as a songwriter for Casualties of Cool?
I think a lot of my personality, and it's obvious to anybody who's paid attention to me or knows me. I'm a pretty high strung character. I get real obsessive and neurotic about what I do. I'm old enough now that I'm aware that and I work on it, but the parts of it that are just a part of me. I've had to learn to integrate it into my process and I think a lot of times I find myself in the company of people who are similar, right? People who are also high strung or manic in the way that they approach music and production. Che is somebody that I had originally worked with on my Key album. Through mutual friends we met and I remember hearing her voice and thinking, she sounds completely disinterested in being involved. That's maybe not the best way to put it.
She doesn't sound desperate to be involved, I think is the best way to put it. There's an aspect about detachment that I felt I really needed, specifically when I write. A lot of the things I end up putting over the top of my old music unless it's sort of a mellow multitrack voice thing that I did on Casualties, it's a real high anxiety type of vibe. So, to hear somebody's voice that was detached and had that sort of smoky quality to it. Without any seeming, need to be involved. It wasn't like she was chasing me down to be involved in it. It was something that, I presented her the music and she was like - sure, sounds good. Over time we ended up finding mutual places of common interest musically and it turned out to be a real cool thing. It was great for me to hear somebody involved in my music that just doesn't sound like they need it in a way. I don't know. It's hard thing to articulate.
You've always explored different styles of music. How does the broad familiarity benefit you when you're playing metal?
When we were younger, or at least when I was younger, the idea of heavy metal was what a lot of these current ironic TV shows with pop artists look back on. The jean jackets, Iron Maiden and the denim backpage, feathered hair. All that stuff that goes along with it. In my opinion, the idea of metal in 2015 and 2016 now I guess, has changed to the point where it's become much more of just a dynamic in music. I hear aspects of metal, whether or not it's the sort of screaming / metalcore vocals in more commercially acceptable stuff or heavy guitars in pop music. It seems like it's become integrated to just be another level of musical dynamic.
For me, having such a strong foundation and having played metal for so many years, it gives me a leg up when it comes to wanting to represent intense emotions. Whether or not that's aggression, love or anger or whatever. I can really draw on that background that I've had as well as the background that I've got in so many different other styles of music to really hammer it home. For example, I'm doing a symphony next year with traditional symphonic instruments and choirs. But, my background in metal has allowed me, I think, to represent some of those real dark things that I used to really love about Stravinsky or Wagner in ways that I don't know if I would have been able to had I not been in Strapping or liked Metallica when I was a kid.
Do you have further plans for Casualties of Cool or will it remain a relatively singular, limited piece of work?
I really think it's good. I think that DVD, it was a pain getting that produced because it was only our second show and our first show was Morgan on drums, so to say it's "warts and all" is an understatement. However, knowing how jammed packed my schedule typically is, I wanted to take the opportunity in that venue to represent it in a sense. So if people hear it, there's at least a visual representation of what it could be. I'm under no illusion, I've said this before, I've considered, even in regards to your last question, making heavy metal is a lot like doing pornography and then trying to be a "real actor."
No matter what you do, you're always going to be like, yeah - but you did porn. So, I don't know what to tell you. In a way, metal is similar. I don't know how many people, even in my peer group who at one time or another was a doom metal band or a death metal band and now they're doing folk stuff or ambient stuff or Radiohead type stuff. But no one is going to take them seriously because at one time there's pictures with them in spiked arm bands or whatever. So I would expect that the thing I do with Casualties and even the potential of how cool this could be, will very likely get overlooked by anybody who isn't in the metal genre straight out of the gate, just because hey - I'm the metal guy, right?
So, I don't know what to tell you. That said, who knows. My fingers are crossed that perhaps that someone will hear this somewhere down the line and go, you know what? This is really cool stuff. Che and I are constant writing still. It's a slow moving process between her and I but we still write. By the time it's ready for another edition of the Casualties of Cool project to come out, it'll be as defined as the first one was.
Devin tell us about what other stuff you've got planned for the year because I know you've always got 120 other projects happening all at once.
I do. That's the theme of sobriety at this point. I've got eight extra hours a day so I gotta fill it with something, right? There's always a lot going on with me, of course. I think excitedly so, too. The last few years and I think Casualties and Z2, I really stretched myself thin and resented the process for a while there. I've taken lessons from that over the past year and I've tried to really streamline it. So the next thing that is coming is this book and I've been working on the book for about a year and a half and it's - I got asked to do an autobiography and my first thought was just, like nah that is stupid. I'm only halfway through my career. Why would anybody care?
But at the same time, I started thinking, I've had a lot of experience and I've managed to eek out a career for myself doing this sort of DIY thing that I'm having to compromise in a lot of ways. So, being able to document that, I think it's a real cool read and I think it could really help people who are potentially wanted a career in doing the same things. That'll come out and now I've been working all the time on the new DTP record, which we start recording in March. I've put a ton of effort into this new record, I want this new one to be killer. I want it to be a real sense of what I do, what I do with these guys and how it fits into the touring that we've done over the past 5-7 years. After that, I've got the symphony I'm doing. In Belgium, there's a movie in surround sound and all of this but that's a little further down the line.
On the side of all that? I'm playing bass with people, I've got this idea of doing the Vengaboys song "We Like To Party" with this incredibly brutal Sock Puppet video that I strangely can't get funded for, but I'm not going to give up. There's always things, I love what I do. I love the whole process and I love the productivity that comes out of it. I apologies for the glut of material that I impose on people, but know that it's coming from a true place. I'm not trying to prove a point, I'm doing it because I love it.
Appreciate you taking the time as always. I wish you the best, thank you.
You too, Jackie. Thank you so much.
Many thanks to Devin Townsend for the interview. Casualties of Cool's self-titled release is available to order via Amazon and iTunes. Find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie’s weekend show at this location.