Strapping Young Lad
SYL (Century Media)
An interview with Devin Townsend
by Martin Popoff
photos by Pia Schachter
Vancouver’s resident metal nose-thumber is only slightly bummed as he braces himself and his he-metallers in Strapping Young Lad to search and destroy in support of the band’s bustling, hustling eminently talked-over self-titled (SYL) album, out now on Century Media Records. It’s been five years since No Sleep ‘Till Bedtime, the bleary-eyed live album from the irreverent reverends, and seven since the intensity in ten cities that was City, so Devin’s stock is high right now. Can he maintain the butt-pole position? You go figure…
What are the new things you’re doing on this Strapping Young Lad album versus City, or in fact, versus the solo albums?
Well, the humor of Strapping has sort of changed to irony, in a less than subtle way. So the humor is not really apparent. We tried to epitomize, “let’s just become a heavy metal band as opposed to an extension of Dev’s paranoia.” We took the obvious strengths of this band, the kinship we all feel with the energy, and used it to make something cathartic. For the sake of the project, it’s democratic. We took the raw energy we had and really meditated on it – for lack of a better word – into becoming something. That’s why we called it Strapping Young Lad. Between the SYL record and the Devin Townsend record, which were done simultaneously, they epitomize each end of the spectrum.
In the lyrics, what are some of the themes? Is the humor still there?
If you say the lyrics aloud, they’re cheesy, but if you scream them, they’re scary. And that was kind of the point. Obviously, all of us being raised in a no war environment, 9/11 was a wake-up call. This record is based on insecurity and fear as opposed to anger, whereas City was really hostile. This one is angry, but it’s more the anger you feel when you’re chilling out and someone comes up behind you and scares the SHIT out of you. The other guys in the band are different from me. Strapping is a freaky dude supported by a bunch of really commanding individuals. Gene Hoglan, Jed Simon, and Byron Stroud; they’re heavy metal dudes. It legitimizes that emotion, and I think that makes it scary.
Does Jed actually play all the guitar on SYL?
I wrote a good amount of the riffs, but for the Devin Townsend release, I played everything, and because we did them simultaneously, I had no real need to prove anything. And the bottom line is Jed is a better metal player than I am, you know? He’s got that right arm, man… When I was younger, there’s that tone that James Hetfield got with his right hand, by picking the SHIT out of it! And Jed’s got that, except it’s 2003 now and we’re playing war music. I think that’s a really cool combo, making the decision to produce Jed, and being really fastidious about the parts, and having an intricate knowledge of what the parts are, but just taking a backseat and saying Jed is much better at doing that triplet shit. I think the effects are great.
Vocally, what’s different here?
I wanted to be a heavy metal singer. The last record I wrote around the riffs, I didn’t jam it out. A song like “Oh My Fucking God,” I’m like “Yabba dabba dabba dabba dabba dabba,” you know? And after doing that night after night live, I’m like, “Holy fuck! What an IDIOT!” So for this record, with the song “Devour” with the “Multiply!”s and the “Hail!”s at the beginning of “Last Minute,” we’ll kind of make it a big bang, what would happen if Strapping was playing in front of two million people, take that approach to it. Make it larger-than-life, but super extreme. We took that approach to the production as well, to make it kind of rock, as opposed to typically metal.
Kind of rock, and less industrial, wouldn’t you say?
Definitely, definitely. Jed was in Frontline Assembly for a while, and I played on a couple of Frontline records, and I like that band Grotus from San Francisco and went through a little Nine Inch Nails phase, but then it was kind of like, “Yeah, OK…,” know what I mean? We’re going to have that percussive industrial feel, but there’s no reason we can’t do that with the instruments.
But you still have an industrial crackle, up there in the high midrange…
Exactly, exactly. It’s kind of like that fire sound.
Why this cover art?
Travis, again. It’s just to emphasize the whole project: SYL, you know? The song titles are really simple, ten songs, just really basic, basic, a heavy metal record that’s easy to digest but also super, super extreme. I’m taking the Def Leppard approach to extremity.
How many of those riffs have a black metal element to them, as opposed to the obvious death metal element?
I fell in love with Passage by Samael, as well as a bunch of black metal I was listening to at the time. I was just like, fuck, there’s some passion here. I just don’t feel it in other music… Whether or not I agree with the principles, it’s kind of beside the point. As a musician, I’m looking for people to give it to me…
Tell me a little bit about your Soilwork experience, producing the Natural Born Chaos album.
It was great, but I think I received too much credit for that record. Soilwork are a talented bunch of motherfuckers. I worked my ass off and I was able to really get in there with them on a personal level and use that to refine their vision. I added a couple of things, especially the vocals and guitars. But it’s not like they came in with one vocal melody and I said, “Why don’t we put this big thing on there?” Bjorn is all over that shit! He’s got an ear for melody that’s fuckin’ uncanny.
That album won Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles’ album of the year…
I know, that’s an honor. Fredrik (Nordstrom) was like, “Man, this is one of the best things that’s ever come out of this studio.” They asked me to do this next record, but I’m committed to so much on my own, that I can’t do the next one.
Have you made other production commitments?
I’m good in my element but if I’m overextended, I lose more hair than I need to. I’ve been talking to Krisiun, but timing isn’t going to permit it. They have a really cool militant percussive thing going on, and it’d be fun to make it sound really cool. But unless you’re in your element, you’re subject to everybody’s opinion. If you’re out-manned, it becomes a constant fight. As opposed to people going, “OK Dev, we want to do it with you; we all know each other and everything’s cool. We’ll come to Vancouver and we’ll make a storming record.” But other than that, I’m losing too much hair. I’ve got very few left to lose…
Any interesting, funny, trivial, habitual, or personal notes about putting together the Strapping Young Lad record?
We got Gene a metronome. A little, flat, Korg digital metronome, a blue one, and he just fell in love with it and it became part of him. Everywhere Gene was, you would hear this “Deet do do, deet do do” going on. We both came out of a really bad time with City, where I threw a bunch of drum parts at him – which he has since perfected – and I think he wanted to go into this one being like the commanding drum bible. So I came into the room one day, looking for Gene, and I see him asleep on the couch and I hear that beeping. I’m wondering where it’s coming from, and I realize that he’s fallen asleep with it under his ear! He wanted to be the perfect drummer.
On City, you’d programmed parts Gene had to match, right?
Yeah, every note. It’s all Gene. The only song that’s programmed is “Spirituality.” Because at that point, I had much more patience for a drum machine and was really into Fear Factory. So I programmed these crazy beats, and Gene was like, “OK, let me just be a drum machine. I’ll learn exactly what the demos are.” And he did. But that was like, from the Death and Dark Angel days, all of a sudden he’s doing grind beats and blast beats, which were new to me, too. But because it was new to both of us, it was like OK. It was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do that?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I can do that! (brrrrrrr)”
You have a keyboardist on the album as well, right?
Yeah, Will just got signed to DefJam and he’s playing guitar. Keyboard players unite! Give Strapping a call. We’ve got a temporary guy doing this Napalm Death tour, but we’re still looking for the guy who’s like “Strapping is my calling, man.” Someone who doesn’t have to leave to join Fear Factory or go work at a sports store or play guitar in another band or something…
The solo albums… Give me a sense of where each of them fits in the scheme of things, now that some time has passed.
The Devin Townsend Band kind of epitomizes all of it. The DTB is on par with Strapping; I spent just as much effort on it. Terria was a highly-illustrated stream-of-conscious thing, real floaty and everything, but I tried to make it like I was on an acid trip or something. I spent a lot of time trying to illustrate unillustrateable ideas. Ocean Machine is probably my most centered period, “I don’t know what’s underneath the waves” kind of idea. And that was illustrated really heavily on Infinity, which followed it, where I had what was essentially a Christ complex. I’ve known about ten, 15 people who’ve gone through them as well. I think in order to earn your wings as an artist, it’s kind of a prerequisite (laughs). No, I’m just joking. Obviously, it had an effect on me to the point where I just freaked out! I had epiphanies and made judgments based on all this new information that was coming in that ended up being inaccurate. Not false, but I just acted on it, in either inappropriate or inaccurate ways. And Infinity has a real sense of defeated glory to it, a bittersweet energy. “Truth” is just outstanding, I love that song. That record is probably my favorite of all the solo records, just because it’s really complete. It took so much work and there’s a lot of emotional attachment to that era. But the problem with my lack of judgment was that, when I finally realized these things and humility set in, I was just like, “Oh God! What a fucking schlemiel!” Then Physicist came out, and that was me… I didn’t want to live. I never committed suicide, I never thought about suicide, but in hindsight, I was just like, go to sleep at 2:30, wake up at 1:00 for The Iron Chef and go back to sleep again. It was just… gross. And I got all big and depressed and I spent some time in hospital. I went from 150 to 210 pounds. Yeah man, it was gross. Not the size necessarily, just how much of a state I was in. Physicist was written when I just didn’t want to write. But I think there was a part of me that wanted to say “Don’t give up, you’ve got one more in you.” That’s why “Material” was written, and “Kingdom” and “Planet Rain,” the songs that are kind of defeated, but there’s definitely still something there. And that’s why Terria was a really healing record. After Physicist, I had a chance… The fan base wasn’t nearly as big as it was for Infinity because I’d kind of ostracized a bunch of fans, so I had a chance to really be me in context of my environment.
And so, The Devin Townsend Band?
That’s me saying “Bring it on. I’m going to be so fucking sensitive but so intense, and be unafraid to be either. Damn the torpedoes.”
Why is it The Devin Townsend Band and not another straight solo album?
The way this record came out being so confident is because I got a bunch of musicians who hadn’t had the same experiences I’ve had, in local bands, and they had such energy and they just had the zeal to play the DT stuff. Not Strapping; they didn’t want to play Strapping. And it was so refreshing for me to have a group of people going “Yeah man! Devin Townsend stuff, that’s where it’s at!” that I played off their energy and the project became The Devin Townsend Band. I called the album Accelerated Evolution because I tried to make a band in a year or six months. Strapping is my “cool guy” – if we’re going to be big rock guys, we’ve got Strapping – but The Devin Townsend Band is all those emotions, all that stuff I’m trying to get across. I’m able to do it with a bunch of guys who really support me in that way.
Is extreme music – like Soilwork, Meshuggah, Opeth, and Dark Tranquillity – the new progressive rock?
I don’t see that stuff as progressive rock, but then again, maybe I do. It’s progressive because it pushes genres that haven’t been mixed together. And, by my definition of progressing, I’d imagine that’s more apt for the term as opposed to doing something that’s been done. I mean, I really like Trilogy by Yngwie Malmsteen, but I’ve heard it copied so many fucking times… Power metal, it’s like, intro, OK, double kick! Stratovarius; I don’t understand the fascination with repeating it! I mean, I think as a dynamic, heavy music it’s untouchable. And I think elements of black metal and death metal and grindcore and progressive metal, all of these things, just touches are really cool. But if I’m listening to some Swedish death metal band, I’m like OK, the production is good – obviously, it’s from Sweden – here come the vocals, yeah, it’s good… I’ll give it a 6.5 and I bet it’s going to do this for the entire fucking record. With the Internet, there’s just so much competition, that just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s like, when you’re good, you’ve got to hold onto it. I get stuck on records, man. When I find a good record, that’s it. I’ll listen to White Pepper by Ween or Passage by Samael for fuckin’ years! Whether the record is necessarily this or that, it either reminds me of something, or inspires me on a stream of thought I want to continue in my own way. Like Ween; White Pepper inspired Terria, and Passage and Domination by Morbid Angel – and Hysteria (laughs) – inspired the new one.
The very best albums, the main thing they do is make you say “Man, I’ve got to go out and produce some art.”
Absolutely! Like Nothing’s Shocking and Frizzle Fry… I mean, I listen to them to the point where I can’t even listen to them anymore.
It’s true what you say about competition. There are so many things you just have to give an 8, but literally will play once or twice...
Exactly (laughs). I gave it an 8 because everything else that day was just fucking crap and at least it had a melody (laughs).
So what is your state of mind right now? Are you happy with the progression of and thoroughness of the Devin catalogue?
Just by the nature of having a work ethic in the metal industry, I’m projecting so much product out, there’s an inevitable backlash that’s going to start. My problem is that I spent so much time getting over the Vai thing that there’s this part of me that, like… Note To Self: don’t read message boards. Because sometimes the music is pretty personal, right? So these fucking people have all this ammunition. If you take it seriously enough to care that much about it, then it really makes you question how much responsibility you actually have in what you do. Something’s gotta change, because I’m at my wit’s end. Money is not the issue. It’s just so taxing on me and Tracy. And now that there’s so much strife in the world, what’s truly important, you know what I mean? Putting out heavy metal records, or the people you love? All this stuff that’s happening (for us) is really cool, and it’s all I ever wanted, essentially, but the downside of it – and I’m not complaining necessarily, I’m just expressing it – I’ve had my head down for the last year, writing and doing these records, and now I put my head up and it’s like, “Oh my God. People care.” And I don’t quite know how I feel about that.
You’re definitely going to get a lot of exposure for the next while. Is the main thing that bothers you the touring?
Just being away from Tracy, I think. The thing is, I have much more faith in the DT thing being commercially viable. I kind of went out of my way to not write pop songs, but say, take my method and put it in a 4 1/2 minute context.
But do you have the distribution superstructure to get that album out to the masses?
Thank God, no! And as a result, it becomes a project. But the thing is, the metal community tends to be kind of misanthropic to begin with, and I guess I also have a fear of being viewed as a keener (laughs). Just because I’m like, “Check it out! I’m doing this! And I’ll do it well! Like me, like me, like me!” (laughs). But I think the thing with Strapping was there from a premeditative point to kind of combat that. It’s like, “Now fuck off!” (laughs).
You’ve got an interesting year coming up, that’s for sure.
Yeah, and I’m looking forward to it, I really am. I talked to Trace last night and we’re like, OK, let’s use this. We can either go to war or we can be pirates. We can use that time to say, OK, well, at the moment I’ve got these hang-ups and I’ve got these addictions and I’ve got this baggage and I don’t exercise and I eat fuckin’ McDonald’s food. Maybe I can take that time to sort of refine it…
Read, work out, see the things you need to see in these cities you’ll probably never see again...
You’re an inspirational motherfucker, Martin. It’s true man; that’s what I actually needed today; I appreciate it.
So no Toronto stop thus far in the itinerary?
Yes, well, I’m in control of all aspects of my career except touring. And it just seems like, with all the places we’re going, there’s just such demand for it. You know, Canada, right? It’s like, you’ve got Vancouver and Toronto, Montreal. The Opera House… that was awesome! One of my favorite gigs ever. I love Canada, but at the same time, we’re sort of all separating from the identity of countries as time progresses. It’s like, we’re all kind of responsible for the ignorance and arrogance of this ridiculous little race and species. The tattoo on my leg looks a little ridiculous now, but that’s OK! (laughs). I’m from Vancouver! (laughs). And dude, to reiterate, I’m still looking forward to it, really, bring it on! But there’s that part of me that’s a little tentative because I’m a bit of a homebody. There’s that part of me that says, “Devy’s going to be uncomfy.”
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