Strapping Young Lad
Alien (Century Media)
An interview with guitarist/vocalist Devin Townsend
By Martin Popoff
Back with Alien (a little of this and a little of that re: the back-slashing catalogue, yet all of it so bloody distinctively Dev), Vancouver’s musical mad maiden is in fine stool-solid form. But does that cohesion extend to the man with the plan? As usual, not really. It’s been a tough slog toward the finishment of Strapping Young Lad‘s latest aural evisceration, and in his inimitable Townsend style (hmmm… Pete is also about this honest and odd in interviews), Devin tells us how Alien, like all his many different records, is a reflection of his frantic inputs as he puts up with life.
Predictable question: What are the changes with Alien, over the last one, SYL?
Just another year, I guess. Each record kind of becomes a snapshot of whatever was going on that year, and this is this year. (laughs) Interesting year, up and down. You end up writing whatever you end up writing and throwing it to the wind. So yes, I would say it’s been an up and down year. I guess the best way to sum it up is, that’s 2004 for me, and you know… next.
Would you say this one is more of a cross between the old stuff and the last record?
I guess you can say that, probably. We’d done the tour with Meshuggah as well, and I think that influenced me, to the point where I wanted to experiment with some things that maybe were a little more technically challenging. With that in mind, I think some of the songs reflect that in terms of length and content.
How do you remember all these parts onstage?
Well, we haven’t played it yet, but I think it’s just, you beat it into your head enough times, and eventually it’s just second nature. It’s like, you get into the moment when you’re playing the faster stuff, and it just seems to sort of roll. And the difficulty of the parts: If the songs are put together the right way, it just becomes integral to whatever is supposed to be going on with that vibe. Rehearsal for something like this is probably about a month and a half, two months, play the songs maybe 25, 30 times.
Can you pick some cool moments where you did some interesting things?
I think “Skeksis” has some cool things going on in it. Skekis was the bad guy from The Dark Crystal. Plus “Thalamus” and “Shitstorm.” On a personal level, I kind of went out of my way in terms of noises and things to make this one dense, but still musical in terms of everything in sync with itself, as opposed to some of the other records, where it’s just random firings throughout the song. Now it’s pretty much one big sink, you know? Filled with crazy things.
Was the working environment for this album pretty weird, or are you getting a little more level-headed about it?
It’s obsessive, but you know, so am I, so it’s nothing out of the usual. It’s annoying that it happens like that. But my way of writing music has always been a little strange. Hoglan, along there with me, the combination of the two weirdos, makes a strange energy. But it’s yet another metal record from us. I think, more than anything else, with Strapping, it’s a vent for energy, and the energy kind of fires in all directions at once. And the purpose of this record was just to capture some of that energy, as opposed to worrying about where it was firing.
Are you saying that Gene was with you a little more, collaborating on this one?
Yes. Byron was doing Fear Factory, and Jed was in Philadelphia, and although they both contributed, it was Gene and me who were stuck in a room with each other for six months writing.
Any strange stories around that?
Well, we argued… Booze, sure, there was some drinking… But it was really more like, just noon until 4 p.m., every day. We ended up arguing for the first time, but not in a violent or vicious way. More like, just getting to the next stage. We were able to discuss things with each other in a certain way. It’s cool, man, it was a good experience. We would just start jamming, and it would grow from one place to another. One thing goes to the next, and the songs appeared.
How about pointing out one or two cool lyrics on here?
Well, technically, the record isn’t about much. Again, it’s just about random firings of emotions. The song “Shine” is a conversation with myself. “Skeksis” is about a math equation that I had an interest in. “Shitstorm” is just about a mental breakdown. Gosh, “Zen” is about letting it all flow, so you can go with it. “We Ride” is, you know, we’ve all got problems, just put it in gear and get it to the next step where you want it to go. So I think each song is about something in a vague sense. On a personal level, I tried to keep the lyrics working with each other so there’d just be this energetic flow to the record.
What were some of the pitfalls of this last year?
Nothing went wrong, but just like, on a world level, there’s a lot of energy that’s crazy, right? We went on tour the year before and, I don’t know, we had a flood the following year, out of the business, and just a lot of things were kind of up and down. And that’s just what came out, man.
Do you look forward to touring these days, or do you still dread it?
I dread it, I guess. But I look forward to certain elements of it. I mean, the thing is, you’re a slave to the muse. I get a song in my head, and that’s it. “Skeksis,” for example. That song sent me over the fucking top, just because there were so many tight harmonies that I couldn’t get out of my head. I would just turn around and I would hear “colours relate to numbers,” just everything tighter and tighter and tighter, minor seconds and major sevenths. The only way I can get rid of the songs is by doing them. So I do them. And Strapping happens every now and then, and it always has. So I did it.
So are you happy with those harmonies? How long did they take you to get them down?
Yeah, I’m extremely happy with them. Actually, I’m more happy with them than I’ve been with a lot of my stuff, just because, for better or for worse, it worked. And now that I’ve gotten those tight harmonies out, I hear things that are a lot more melodic. And I don’t know if I would’ve had the opportunity to hear these things, say in the DT band, that are little more melodic, had I not had the opportunity to get that out. It’s like, until it does come out, it kind of poisons everything else.
Are you frustrated on tour, not being able to record?
Oh my God, yeah! I mean, some people love touring because they can get out there and party and avoid, right? And Jesus, I’ve got so much shit, that when I avoid, I go fucking nuts, man. Because I’ve got family and dying people, money problems, and all the sort of shit that is a real normal environment for a lot of people, that doesn’t exist for a lot of the time within the people that tour for a living. And for the most part, I’m in bands with people who don’t really need to be around Vancouver, you know? But I fucking do. I think where a lot of the angst comes from on the new Strapping record is a lot of that: Things that are a little more adult, just like, fucking hell, man, give me a break, you know? And this is how it comes out. And then all of a sudden, we have a flood, we had in-laws move into our house, we almost go broke and all this sort of shit, and there’s no release. And there’s a part of me that wants to bitch. There’s a part of me that wants to go “poor me.” And there’s another part of me that goes, “Yeah? There’s a tsunami where fucking 300,000 people just lost everything. Shut the fuck up!” Right? But as a result of being a musician, and one with the ability to freak out, I was like, I can’t bitch to my wife, because she’s going through the same shit. I can’t bitch to my band, because either they’re not here or we’re different. So fuck it! As a sensitive person, something just clicked, right? And it was like, man, I’m just going to write the fucking harshest, craziest record I can think of.
Now, when you’re on the road, do you have an ample way to get these ideas down out of your head and recorded?
I have the guitar with me at all times. The way I write my music is just guitar and tape deck. So as long as I’ve got that, I’m OK for the preliminaries.
Like a four-track?
No, just a hand-held recording machine: A cassette and a record button.
I’d think a guy like you would have a little more.
Well, I’ve got a good memory for music. And it’s like Occam’s Razor; I really believe that. Specifically with music. The simplest answer is always the most appropriate. All those little toys break, and I’m not into things that can’t take it. I’m not into things that are fragile. You know, I had this little thing, hand-held, it had tons of sounds, it had a microphone and it’s a 17-track recorder and a drum machine, all the shit, but you drop it once, and it breaks. But you’ve got a cassette deck, and you can throw it at a wall, (laughs) and it’s not going to break. I don’t know, man, like I said, as a musician, I’m just a slave to the muse and I keep writing. If the song is good, I’m going to remember it. And if the song is forgettable, and I’m going to forget it. I just keep writing.
Are you doing anything to stay in shape? How’s the health?
Well, it was bad, but it’s getting better. I’m fat now. (laughs) Not much, though. What happened was, to make the Strapping record, I really went far into what it was to make a Strapping record. I was like, you know, let’s drink lots, let’s eat lots of spicy beef, let’s sit in the basement and smoke weed and drink vodka and not take my meds and blah blah blah, and that’s what happened: The record. Toward the end of it, I had a moment where I was like “Holy fuck, I’m fucked up.” And so I just reversed it and started eating better and cutting down on everything.
So you almost play a part when making a record, and then hopefully say “I can get out of this.”
To a certain extent, but it’s not on purpose. It’s based on thinking that that’s the best thing to do. Just feeling like a vessel for it, know what I mean? You spend six months with your head in the red and then a month wearing Snoopy pajamas. (laughs) I don’t know, man. I’m a musician. It’s a really weird life.